The Southern Festival of Books was this past weekend in Nashville, TN. I went to it; at least I went on Saturday, parked in a parking garage, ate a granola bar, and thought about last year when I made a fool of myself in front of Chad Harbach. But that was then. And this is now. Or at least it was “now” a few days ago.

A book festival, or at least the Southern Festival of Books is only part fest–really it’s more like a conference. That’s kind of sad, but there are not rock star throngs–there are doe-eyed totebaggers and senior ladies dotted in costume jewelry and wispy white haired men stumbling with a schedule in one hand and a sports coat draped over the other. I’ve always wanted literary festivals (and maybe especially this one) to have a looser feel–because the greatest thing holding it back is its location. I don’t mean the city locale–I happen to enjoy Nashville on most days–but several of the sessions are held in State legislative conference rooms–that is the place with giant government seals hanging above massive conference tables and high-backed chairs with notices on the walls about public hearings on agriculture.

Last year, I listened to Kevin Wilson of the Family Fang fame speak in the actual State House of Representatives Chambers. I had a seat with a microphone and an old-school button that would have allowed my voice to be heard on whatever important policy issue was facing the state of Tennessee at the time.

This year, during a panel with Adam Wilson (no relation to Kevin) and Lydia Netzer, Tupelo Hassman knocked over a plaque the size of medium pizza and placed it on the table. No one, least of her, knew what to do with it. By the way, I had never heard of Ms. Hassman, but enjoyed her reading of Girlchild–which seems to have an Ellen Foster feel to it–and I’ll be sure to check it out soon.

So there is an aura of highminded-ness surrounding the place, with its great signing colonnade and massive well, uh, columns. A few sessions were held in the beautiful downtown library, which is more comfortable I think for all involved…because there are actual books, and not just debates about why not Tennesseans can use their Social Security cards to vote when they can use their firearm permit.

But even against that backdrop, there were writers. And I listened to a few of them.

Here are a few of the things I enjoyed the most.

Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins. Walter said it took him several years to write this, and he constantly picked up and put it back down, thinking it was done or close to done five different times, but never quite.

He schooled me on “whale oil beef hooked” to speak with an Irish accent, which I had never heard of before, though it’s most definitely a thing.

Dan Chaon, author of Stay Awake. I walked in on Chaon while he was reading a story about someone named O’Sullivan and a medical waste truck. It was funny. I had forgotten how much I liked Await Your Reply, and Chaon seemed like a generally “with it” guy. Someone asked about his favorite authors, and mentioned John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, William Trevor, and Joyce Carol Oates. He also gave a shoutout to the new Victor La Valle novel, The Devil in Silver (though Chaon called it by another name, though generally described the premise of this book). I asked him about Lena Dunham, because she was his student at Oberlin. He was somewhat concerned that I knew about this–I had just read it somewhere. Anyway, he said she has a “good head on her shoulders” and said he wished he had a book contract like hers, but that no one would want his “advice on sex and things like that.”

He also discussed Fifty Shades of Grey, and that he flipped through it at the grocery store, saying “I can’t do the sexy S&M thing, I want to, but I can’t.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is an Atlantic Wire blogger, and he’s writing a book on the Civil War, though it’s not out yet. I was very excited for his talk, and the crowd was good–close to 150 probably. He discussed how he used to think of the Civil War as a “violent football game” but how the Civil War should mean more to the African-American experience than it currently does. An excellent discussion.

Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet; Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles. I don’t usually consider these two authors to be similar, but the moderator made it work. They focused on families and apocalyptic topics, so in that vein, they are similar. I was very interested in Marcus, I had never heard him speak before, and the questions from the audience were actually thoughtful–instead of the typical “HOW DO I GET PUBLISHED” B.S. that often weighs these affairs down.

Marcus and Walker discussed genre (ok, I asked about that) with Marcus saying:

“I’m not sure how much I want to play along (with genre distinctions)…I like thinking we can step up to the buffet table and tell the stories we want to tell.”

Someone else asked Marcus about experimentation and his many fights/struggles with experimentation against conventional narratives, and if Flame Alphabet was “selling out.”

His response: “Selling out involves some type of cash, so I didn’t sell out.”

Then more seriously, noting that some things are more important than experimentation: “In general, I want to connect and the way to do that is to write about something I care about…I have to care desperately (to write) and feel sick at getting it wrong. I don’t feel obligated to be more experimental or less..I just write what I care about.”

I always like when writers talk about getting through blocks, and Walker gave great insight into her strategy:

Karen Thompson Walker: “If I start to get bored, I try to find a way around that. For me, I have to be curious about what comes next.”

Some people I missed: Gillian Flynn, Junot Diaz, Ben Fountain, Rosencrans Baldwin, others I’m sure I would like if I knew about them.

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  • Monica Drake

    Hey there–we missed you! Or you missed us. I was there, touring with Chuck Palahniuk & Chelsea Cain. It was a blast.