Southern Festival of Books 2016 Recap

I spent Saturday morning and afternoon at the Southern Festival of Books in downtown Nashville. I arrived at the downtown library at 9, unloaded the stroller and wheeled the baby to the auditorium for the early book talk. I didn’t know that it was sponsored by the Nashville chapter of the Women’s National Book Association, an organization I’m glad to have learned about. There were little muffins and coffee cakes on the way in. I parked the stroller in the hall and found a seat in the back, on the aisle, near a door, with the baby on my lap. Curtis Sittenfeld, Adam Haslett, Danielle Dutton, and Yaa Gyasi sat in a row in comfy chairs on the stage, interviewed by a local host. Each read an excerpt from their books. Questions concentrated on their writing processes, which I actually don’t find all that interesting. It’s kind of a repetitive question that comes up at every author talk I ever go to. But it was interesting and heartening to learn that Dutton’s book took her 10 years to write, and Gyasi’s took her 7. I had heard of Dutton, but not of Haslett; now both of their books are added to my long list of books to read. Luckily I’ve become comfortable nursing in public. I fed the baby during the talk, but when he was finished, he thrashed around and hit his head on the arm of my chair, making him cry. I got up and ran out the door quickly–my strategic seating decision minimized disruption. I calmed him and went back inside. He slept through the second half.

When the talk was over, I hustled the stroller up the hill to the Legislative Pavillion where the rest of the festival was. I found the ramp and the big tent from Parnassus Books with all the books from all the authors. I picked three, limited by budget, and knowing I couldn’t count on having time to get more than that many books signed. I got Sittenfeld’s Eligible, and the new books from Lauren Oliver and Beth Revis. Then I had to figure out how to get up to the signing colonnade with the stroller. I had to go into the building on the ground floor, through a hall to an elevator, then up. I met Sittenfeld, and told her I’m from Cincinnati, where her book is set. Then I rushed back inside and down the elevator to the room where Lauren Oliver’s talk would be. It was a very full room. Oliver was presenting with Kendare Blake, a small, funny woman whose YA books seem dark and gory, in a good way. Oliver’s disciplined, prolific writing schedule awes me. She writes as many as 3 books at a time, at least 500 words a day on each. No wonder she has so many novels. I also found out that her first book, Before I Fall, will be a movie in the spring. After I went back to the elevator, up to the colonnade, and got in line with the baby, I saw that Oliver actually had one of the longest signing lines I saw all day. (J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, had perhaps the longest.) The baby smiled at people in line. Oliver actually remembered me from two years ago, or at least she said she did.

I had a break then; Beth Revis’s talk didn’t start for almost 2 hours. I went back down the elevator and outside. I walked to the food trucks and got chicken tacos. That area was really crowded and hard to navigate with the stroller. I realized I couldn’t carry the plate of tacos while wheeling the stroller, so I sat down there on a curb and ate. Then the baby was fussy so I fed him too. He liked playing with my empty water bottle. Then I took my time going back to the door to get to the elevator, glancing at booths, picking up a couple brochures and wishing I could spend lots of money on cute book accessories. When I got back inside, it was still early; another talk was going on in the room, so I went to the bathroom. There was no changing table for the baby, so I changed him in the stroller. I sat in a chair and nursed him again, and he fell right asleep. Someone helped me wheel the stroller to park it in the anteroom. The room was mostly empty and there were 10 minutes to kill. I spotted two girls I’d met before at another book event and talked to them a while, exchanging contact info. Revis’s talk was mostly a prepared speech about the ‘origin story’ for her new book, A World Without You. I think she presented it that way so that she didn’t get too emotional. She said that it was inspired by the life of her brother, who passed away from complications of mental illness and addiction. That’s the kind of connection I like to learn about at a book talk. She also said that her son was born the day after she turned the book in to her publisher (and he’s now a year and a half old). Another elevator to the colonnade, then back down and out, down the hill to the library, and $11 to the parking garage (!).

All that is to say:

1) Book festivals rock. The people I meet there are so friendly and cool and alive with a spark that makes them unique. They are passionately interested in their quirky little niche, proudly letting their freak flag fly, and that is a beautiful thing.

2) Navigating crowds and multi-floor events with a stroller is exhausting. I truly feel for disabled people who have to deal with that every day and don’t ever have the option to leave the baby at home.

3) Tennessee’s state government building is not set up to be very easily accessible for the disabled or for women with children. But they made as many accommodations as they could and were very friendly about opening doors and pushing elevator buttons.

4) People like seeing babies, so even though I felt like I was taking up too much space and potentially disrupting things, I felt very welcome. That was a huge relief, because I was afraid parenthood would stop me from enjoying events like this.

5) I am super lucky to have such a chill baby who is so friendly in crowds and doesn’t throw tantrums when I need him to be quiet.

6) I got introduced to some authors I’m now interested in learning more about, including Haslett and Blake.

7) I have 3 more signed books to read!


2016 Southern Festival of Books

As in past years, I’m excited to go to the Southern Festival of Books this weekend! I’ll have a baby in tow this time, so I’m not sure how many events we’ll make it to, but these are the authors I’m hoping to see:

Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing, to be reviewed here soon

Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep and Eligible, which have been on my “books to read” list for a long time

Lauren Oliver, author of the Delirium trilogy, Before I Fall, Panic, Rooms, and Vanishing Girls

Beth Revis, author of the Across the Universe trilogy

Gayle Forman, author of If I Stay and Where She Went

Maggie Stiefvater, author of Lament, Ballad, the Shiver trilogy, Sinner, and The Raven Cycle

Southern Festival of Books Recap

I really enjoyed myself at the Southern Festival of Books this year! The weather was gloomy and drizzly, and I always hate parking downtown (garages make me claustrophobic and paying to park feels like a tax on breathing), but it was worth the hassle.

First I got to see Lauren Oliver. She’s very bubbly and youthful and entertaining, a great speaker who managed to make her small room of fans feel like a group of girlfriends. She talked a bit about the “controversy” about adults reading YA books, and said something very similar to my own opinion. She defined YA books as books about teenage protagonists in real time, ie, not adults looking back on their teen years, but kids making sense of their own experiences as they live them. And as such the books can be escapist because they allow adults to immerse themselves in the overwhelming emotions and polarized thinking of teenagers. She implied that remembering that intense way of living can be invigorating for adults, just as reading more complex adult novels can be educational for teens, complicating their developing perspectives.

Oliver’s newest book is an adult novel, her first, Rooms, and it’s about a haunted house and a rich family who lives there. Oliver was sweet enough to let me ambush her after her talk to sign her book rather than waiting in line so that I could go to the session right after hers.

That session was Jamie Poissant and Antonya Nelson. They read from their short story collections, very strange and funny stories, and talked about what it takes to get a collection of short stories published. Jamie’s such a great guy and I’m so glad he’s had so much success. Seeing him again really made me miss those writing workshops.

The following day, Saturday, I saw Brock Clarke, my old workshop teacher, read from and talk about his new book The Happiest People in the World. I’m excited to read it. It’s about spies in a small town and seems like a perfect subject for Brock’s sometimes off-the-wall style. Brock was so kind and interested in what I’ve been doing for the past 6 years. Coincidentally, I also met Trenton Lee Stewart, a friend of Brock’s who’d come up from Little Rock to get together. We talked briefly about author-read audiobooks, and I didn’t even realize that he was the author of the Mysterious Benedict Society books until afterward.

After saying good-bye to Brock, I sat in on Gary Sheytengart’s reading from his memoir Little Failure. It’s about his childhood and his family’s journey from Russia to the US in the 70’s. He’s just as funny as you’d expect.

On Sunday, the only event I went to was Lev Grossman. He got to hold forth in the big auditorium. He talked about how he wrote his Magicians trilogy with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe on one side of his desk, and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen on the other, which makes a lot of sense. I did get to ask him my question about parenting and balancing that with writing. He quoted someone who said that books are written with time stolen from other people. A painful truth. When he signed my book I told him that his books were the ones I’d always wanted to write, and he said he felt the same when he read certain other books like American Gods. Very reassuring.

Now I have 5 signed books that I need to read, added to the top of the endless pile!

The Southern Festival of Books 2014

Two years ago, I used to go to tons of book-related events. Most of them were at the public library in downtown Nashville. I got to see Eoin Colfer, Erin Morgenstern, Cheryl Strayed, Barbara Kingsolver, Sherman Alexie, and my favorite, Margaret Atwood. They all rocked.

Since my son was born, I haven’t been able to go to those kinds of events. I didn’t hear about any that I was just devastated to miss, but I had stopped looking for info on them so I wouldn’t have.

But I put myself on kid duty all last weekend, so that my husband will take him all next weekend and I can go to the Southern Festival of Books! I’m really excited about this year’s lineup, including old friends and authors I really admire:

Jamie Poissant, who was in workshops with me at UC and now teaches at UCF. His book is called The Heaven of Animals.

Brock Clarke, who taught those workshops at UC and now teaches at Bowdoin College in Maine. His newest book, The Happiest People in the World, comes out next month.

Antonya Nelson, author of Funny Once and a few other short story collections. I got to see her read once before at UC and she’s reading with Jamie on Friday

Megan McCaferty, author of the Bumped trilogy.

Lauren Oliver, whose Before I Fall, Panic, and Delirium trilogy I loved, and who has a new book out called Rooms

Ron Rash, author of Serena. His new book is Nothing Gold Can Stay.

Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story. His new book is a memoir called Little Failure.

Claudia Gray, author of the Evernight books. Her new book is A Thousand Pieces of You.


Lev Grossman, author of the amazing Magicians trilogy. The fact that he’s coming makes me really mad at myself for not reading The Magician’s Land yet; I hope there are no spoilers. If I get to ask him a question it might be about parenting and this awesome article.

I don’t think I’ll be able to see all of these awesome people, because a couple of them are scheduled at the same time, but I’m going to make an effort! If you’re in Nashville or close enough to drive, I’m sure it will be worth it!

Cheryl Strayed at NPL

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, visited and spoke at the Nashville Public Library on Thursday night. I enjoyed Wild, but thought it was somewhat overrated. Nevertheless, I knew it would be worthwhile to see Strayed speak, and it was. She spent most of her time telling us the background for the book, the story behind it, why she decided to hike the PCT. Much of the story was also in the book, but she was a good speaker and it’s a good story. She only wrote the book years after her journey, though, and her explanation for that delay was one of my favorite moments in the talk. She said she needed years to process that experience and to become skilled enough to be ready for it as a writer. Then, she connected that to the definition and purpose of memoir. She said that you don’t have to do some big, grand thing like hike the PCT or climb Mount Everest to write a memoir, which is a relief to aspiring writers with hopelessly mundane lives. Instead, memoir is about using one’s own story to help others and illuminate the human condition; in this way it has the same purpose as all literature.

Strayed’s poor physical preparation for her hike was a big part of the memoir, but she told us how she prepared mentally instead by deciding not to be afraid. The experience took her out of her head and placed her in her body in a way that grounded her and made her feel strong, in the end. And looking back, the grand thing about the trip was the accumulation of days and pains she endured, the fact that she was ultimately able to bear the unbearable physically, and that somehow translated into being mentally and emotionally capable of handling her overwhelming grief and regret. These are ideas I’m clinging to, and hopefully bringing into the delivery room with me next month.

Strayed concluded her talk with a letter/essay from the book that compiles her Dear Sugar advice columns, Tiny Beautiful Things. It was basically a letter to her younger self, which seemed fitting.

Barbara Kingsolver at the Nashville Public Library

Last night I got to see Barbara Kingsolver read from her latest book, Flight Behavior, and answer lots of good questions. She ended up outlining several rules for writing that she tries to follow herself. I thought they were wise, but daunting, especially #3 and #5. Here they are:

  1. The first sentence of the book should make a promise that the book will keep.
  2. Keep a large trash can next to your desk, or use your delete key often. The best gift you can give your readers is to withhold the bad writing.
  3. Make sure the idea is important enough that it’s worth spending a couple years of your life on. The book should ask a question that’s never been asked before.
  4. Give the reader a reason to turn every page. Plot is important.
  5. Do something dangerous in the writing to make it challenging for yourself, to keep yourself interested and engaged while writing.

Kingsolver also told how she wrote her first novel ina closet as a 31-year-old pregnant woman with insomnia. It’s always heartening to hear about writers who got started when they were older than you currently are, especially when you can find glimmers of their story that make you feel like you have something in common. (Hey, I’m pregnant too!) It’s like the opposite feeling you get from hearing about someone like Keats, who composed several masterpieces and died at an age when you didn’t even feel like an adult. That just makes you want to give up, doesn’t it?

I first saw Kingsolver speak in 2005, when I was a junior marshall at Centre College’s commencement ceremony. I remember her speech as very urgent, environmentalist, and inspiring. I felt jealous of that class for having such a good speaker. The year after I graduated, there was another great address by Tim Russert, just a couple years before he died. But in 2006, we were stuck with Gordon Gee, who was chancellor of Vanderbilt, and spent his entire speech at Centre College talking only about Vanderbilt. Before he led Vanderbilt, he was president of Ohio State, so between those two schools, he represented four graduate programs that had rejected me. I’m not bitter or anything. If only Barbara could have come again! I wouldn’t have minded if she’d given the exact same speech two years in a row!

Margaret Atwood lecture

Margaret Atwood is lovely, witty, and wise. In her lecture at the Nashville Public Library, Atwood talked a lot about The Handmaid’s Tale, its writing and background. She wrote it in 1984 (the year I was born) while living in West Berlin and Tuskaloosa, Alabama. Seeing the totalitarian state close up in Berlin informed the writing significantly. She said that novel is not about a feminist or anti-feminist dystopia, but a dystopia told from a female perspective. Her point was that men suffer in that regime as well. While writing she was careful that all of the strange and oppressive things that happened in the novel were things that had happened at one point in history. And, she pointed out, if it happened before, it can happen again. She said that writing the book scared her, but she knew she had to keep writing it. To finish that part of her talk, Atwood read a section from The Handmaid’s Tale about the men’s bodies hanging on the wall as warnings to future traitors, saying it was the part of the book she wrote first.

Atwood concluded with a piece from her most recent novel, The Year of the Flood, singing a hymn she wrote called “We Praise the Tiny Perfect Moles,” and explaining the unusual environmentalist religion people follow in that novel. One remark she made about religion that was particularly popular with the crowd was that she believes it’s a presumptuous heresy to say that you know what God wants. She would “look askance” at Richard Mourdock, I suppose. However, she does believe that religion and narrative are both hardwired into us as human beings, that we are evolved to depend on these two ways of making meaning. The next question then, is what kind of religion is it? What kind of narrative is it?

I loved a metaphor she used during the Q&A to describe reading. She said that writing on the page is like a musical score. It’s dead until a musician plays it or a reader reads it, and each reading is individual, just as each musician’s version of a particular piece of music will be a little different from the last. Atwood’s 50-some books are like pieces of music playing with millions of variations in the minds of readers all over the world, making a beautiful noise, making us all a little more aware and alive.