The Southern Festival of Books

By BILL CONGER
Autograph April 2010

Fingers clicking on a keyboard break the silence of a room as a writer’s inspiration sparks and his words weave a story. Years pass and the author waits impatiently for his baby to enter the world. Then, the reader strolls up to the book shelf, coos over the latest deliveries, picks up and embraces the creator’s brain child. Opening the newly printed cover, the words finally see the light of day and the story breathes life.

“It’s a special intimacy,” author Joseph Kanon said. A former book publishing executive, he’s the pen behind five novels—Stardust, Los Alamos, The Good German, The Prodigal Spy and Alibi. “I think that reading—there’s a one-on-one quality. I meet people who think that no one else has read the book. It’s just me and her. That’s a kick for any author.”

That mysterious link between authors and readers was celebrated at the 21st annual Southern Festival of Books, held each year in October in downtown Nashville, Tenn.

“I just love it,” says Phyllis Watson of Montgomery, Ala., who visited the event for the second time. “I collect autographs, copies of books. So this is a great place to get a lot of autographs of different types of authors.”

The three-day literary event, held in the state capitol building and adjacent plaza, played host to more than 200 authors of fiction, history, mystery, cooking, biography, travel, poetry and children’s literature.

Robert Olen Butler

Robert Owen Butler signs for fans.

“The act of creation is really, to be honest, without the readers and fans in mind. There’s an implied desire to communicate, but you don’t think about specific people when you’re writing, or even people in general,” said Robert Olen Butler, the 1993 Pulitzer Prize winner for his short story collection, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain. He has published eleven novels including The Alleys of Eden, Sun Dogs, Countrymen of Bones, On Distant Ground, Mr. Spaceman, and his latest, Hell.

“It’s a matter of finding just the right words to articulate the deep vision you have of the human condition. And you have no other way to express it, but by creating the object.

Then, of course, it’s a great pleasure to be out amongst the people that hear what you’ve had to say and in

They Whisper signed by Butler and courtesy of William Butts.

some ways, know it better than you do. Not to mention I was trained early on as an actor, and the ham sizzles hotly in me in these situations,” Butler says of the book signing experience.

On this chilly autumn day, Butler sits patiently outside at an autograph table in an area called the Signings Colonnade. Numerous tables are set up at a back wall in the War Memorial Plaza, where several authors sit practically shoulder to shoulder meeting and greeting their admirers.

Fortunately, for fans, most lines (except Buzz Aldrin who drew a couple hundred fans) were short. About 20 yards across from the autograph tables, a huge makeshift bookstore displays the work of authors in attendance. On this occasionally wet weekend, hundreds of fans came out to the free event. No tickets or advance registration were needed.

Fans of the written word lined up to rub elbows with celebrities of the book industry and one star from outer space.

Buzz Aldrin

Buzz Aldrin signs for fans at the festival.

“There are a lot of people who are involved in space that somehow don’t attract a crowd,” said Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step foot on the moon. “They only pay attention to stars and not plain solid citizens.”

Aldrin and coauthor Ken Abraham signed copies of the memoir, Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon that was published earlier this year for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission.

“I think that I try to appeal to all ages really with children’s books and science fiction, documentaries and tell-it-all or whatever,” said Aldrin. “I am trying to reach a lot of different people because they need to know about space and education.”

“To a lot of us book readers and lovers, the authors are like rock stars,” said Daniel DiPlacido of St. Louis, Mo., who was the first in line to get an autograph from the astronaut and author.

“I think we’re the lowest form of rock stars,” coauthor Kanon adds with laugh.

Unlike Hollywood celebrities and sports figures, the relationship between authors and their readers is on a different playing field.

Kimberla Lawson Roby

Kimberla Lawson Roby with a fan.

“For me, I’m able to still walk around, and I can interact with them,” New York Times bestselling author Kimberla Lawson Roby told Autograph. “I can spend time with them—I can be more personal with them. They become more like friends than readers of mine.”

Roby has published 14 novels including The Best of Everything, Sin No More, Love & Lies, Changing Faces, and her latest, Be Careful What You Pray For. She received the Blackboard Fiction Book of the Year award in 2001 for Casting the First Stone. In 2006, 2007 and 2009, she was the recipient of the Author of the Year, Female, presented by the African-American Literary Award Show in New York. Roby tackles tough topics in her book like sexual abuse, domestic violence, corruption within the church, gambling addiction, and racial and gender discrimination in the workplace.

“She was so nice and down to earth,” said Canesha Gordon, the president of Roby’s book club, of her first time meeting the writer.

At her signing table, Roby cut up with her fans, had them come around behind the table to take pictures with her and autographed whatever they wanted. She often talks to them via instant messaging through social networking, but there’s nothing quite as special as seeing them in person.

“Oh, my gosh! That’s probably the best part of what I do,” Roby says of her time with the fans. “It’s one thing to enjoy the writing, and I certainly enjoy that process, but it is the meeting and interacting with my readers that keep me doing this. That’s the reward in it. Meeting thousands of people across the country that you never would have met had you not written a book.”

Kathryn Stockett

Kathryn Stockett signs for fans.

“When I was writing The Help, I never thought anybody was going to read it, said Kathryn Stockett, who received 45 rejections before an agent signed on to her debut novel. “It’s pretty incredible to stare in the face of your readers, but it’s also something that you take home with you, and it can be very intimidating as you’re trying to write your next book. You still have those eyes staring back at you, which is not something I experienced on the first one.”

Stockett is trying to adjust to all the attention.

“I love what [poet and novelist] Ron Rash said,” Stockett remembers. “We were all sitting at a

Bestseller The Help signed by Kathryn Stockett and courtesy of Putnam | Riverhead.

table together at a festival , and we were all about to go out on stage. And he just looked at me and shook his head, ‘What are we doing here? We’re writers. We’re basically introverts. After you get published, they throw you out on stage and expect you to dance.’”

Stepping outside the isolation booth of writing can be intimidating, but Stockett is simply grateful that there’s an audience just waiting to be entertained with books.

“I’m so glad that people are coming together in communities and talking about books and not talking about American Idol,” Stockett said. “Hey, I like American Idol too, but I’m not going to spend a weekend talking about it. I’m just thrilled. We think of America as sort of losing their academia, but the truth is we’re full of readers.”

Stuart Woods

Stuart Woods signs for a fan.

Many of those readers came to see prolific novelist Stuart Woods, who says he enjoys signing for readers.

“I’m happy to do it,” Woods said. “I do it twice a year, every year. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it. It’s always nice to hear from the readers. I get a lot of emails from people, but it’s nice to see them face to face too.”

Woods has had 24 straight bestsellers on the New York Times hardcover list. His latest, Hothouse Orchid, features the return of Special Agent Holly Barker. In 2009, he also published the Will Lee novel, Mounting Fears and a new Stone Barrington, Loitering With Intent. Woods won the Edgar Allan Poe prize from the Mystery Writers of America for Chiefs, which was made into a six-hour television drama and established Woods as a novelist.

“I write for myself. I don’t have any audience,” Woods said. “I don’t have any person in mind. I just write the kind of book I’d like to read myself in the hope that somebody else might do that.”

Zora Debodisco obviously does. She pulled up to the autograph table with a suitcase full of books to be autographed.

“I’ve been collecting his books, as you can see, waiting for the opportunity to meet him and sometimes things just stack up because you’ve been waiting for so long,” Debodisco laughed.

“I’ve met a lot of writers,” adds Debodisco, “and there are writers, who I’ve read the book, loved the book, met the author, and would never buy another book, because they don’t do their book justice. Mr. Woods, you can tell, really enjoys writing; he enjoys what he puts into his books; he enjoys his fans. It’s a pleasure to meet a writer like that.”

Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg.

“For me, a lot of them just feel like friends,” author Elizabeth Berg said of her fans. “They feel deeply familiar with the work and with me. It’s very comfortable. They tell me small things.”

Berg has made the cut on the New York Times bestsellers list for The Year of Pleasures, The Art of Mending, Say When, True to Form, Never Change, and Open House, which was an Oprah’s Book Club selection in 2000. Talk Before Sleep was short-listed for the ABBY (American Bookseller’s Book of the Year) award in 1996. The American Library Association chose both Durable Goods and Joy School for Book of the Year awards. Her latest novel is Home Safe.

“Sometimes it will be a grandmother, a mother and a daughter [that follow her work], so it’s a multi-generational thing,” Berg said. “Sometimes it’s deeply personal stuff that they’ll say is why this book means something to them.

“I think that ultimately you write for yourself, but you really hope to make that connection, especially if you publish. It’s really gratifying and a lot of fun.”

Fan, Leah Locke of Goodlettsville, Tenn. met Berg for the first time at the festival. “You feel like you know them after you read their work. So, it’s nice to see them in person.”

Collecting Authors

Moon, Man's Greatest Adventure, signed by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins.

Historian James McDonough, who has penned numerous books on the Civil War and author of the The Wars of Myron King: A B-17 Pilot Faces WWII and U.S.-Soviet Intrigue, relates to the book writing and book signing experience.

“I’ve had Gary Cooper years ago walk right by me, and he’s probably my favorite actor, but I wasn’t interested in getting his autograph,” McDonough remembers. “But if I know an historian whose written a book or some novelist, I like having their signature on the book. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe it’s because I’m interested in writing myself.”

Between signings, panel discussions and readings, some of the authors straddled the line of participant and fan. Journalist Dave Cullen, author of Columbine, took a variety of pictures with Kathryn Stockett until he got the one he wanted. Rick Bragg chatted it up with Elizabeth Berg. First-time novelist George Bishop got a book signed by Robert Olen Butler.

“I have been meeting authors that I’ve always wanted to meet, and I think I would never have dared approached them except in the context of a festival like this,” Bishop said. “At the festival they’re very approachable, I think, for anybody. You just walk up and say hello.”

Note: Southern Festival of Books: A Celebration of the Written Word is held the second full weekend in October every year. For more information, go to www.humanitiestennessee.org

About Steve Cyrkin, Editor

Steve Cyrkin is the editor & publisher of Autograph, and focuses mostly on forgery, market and consumer protection issues.