I'm a southern Kentucky native -- grew up just a few miles away from the Tennessee state line, turned to Nashville in my growing up as the nearest "real" city -- and yet this weekend's Southern Festival of Books was my very first. In fact, I flew in all the way from my new home in Greensboro, NC, to take part, and I had the mixed (but mostly good) fortune, as a first-time author, of experiencing the event from the inside: behind the signing table, the microphone, and the little folding card with my name printed on it.
I was especially thrilled to get to participate in the Women's National Book Association's "Breakfast with Authors," which celebrated National Reading Group Month and brought together five authors (including yours truly,) one moderator, NPR's Nina Cardona, and about 150 WNBA members and festival participants. As Nina noted, these numbers represented a significant swell from last year, when 50 breakfasters joined Nina in welcoming Elizabeth Strout, who was a few months shy then of being honored with the Pulitzer.
Nina further noted that it was at first difficult to find a common lens through which to discuss the works of the five participating authors: Marie Brenner, author of Apples and Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found, a memoir; Perri Klass, author of The Mercy Rule, a novel about a pediatrician and mother; Inman Majors, author of The Millionaires, a novel based on brothers Jake and C.H. Butcher, who brought the World's Fair to Knoxville, TN; and Kathryn Stockett, whose The Help, a novel about a surprising alliance forged between a young, white woman and two black maids in 1960s Mississippi. My own book, Girl Trouble, is a collection of short stories set in a small Kentucky town.
These books, Nina said, "have as many differences to each other as there are similarities." But what emerged for her in each were the characters, whether real or fictional, and she began the session by asking each of us some specific question about the process of building a character: How did I populate my fictional Roma, KY, with its cast of "desperate" but distinct small towners? Did Marie fear the response to her portrayal of her smart, driven, frustrating -- and ultimately self-destructive -- brother? How did Perri, as an accomplished pediatrician in real life, separate fiction from fact? Similarly, how much did Inman depend upon accounts of the Butcher brothers in creating his fictional Roland and J.T. Cole?
The pleasure of the panel, for me, at least, was in recognizing how often my experiences overlapped with those of the other presenters, and theirs with one another. Perri told a funny story about working extra hard to make sure that a character in her book, the mother of an at-risk child, bore no resemblance to any of the patients Perri had worked with in life -- only for a woman fitting the book's description to later, after its writing, walk into her office. Similarly, Inman reported that he sought to create Roland and J.T. Cole from scratch, not from pieced-together accounts -- and yet, people who knew the men and the time period have told him that he "nailed" them.
When asked about the audacity it had taken to write not only about race in the south but in the voice of black characters, Kathryn Stockett said something that resonated particularly with me: she hadn't thought, writing, that her book would ever be published, that it would ever have an audience. It wasn't until The Help was out in the world that she realized that she, like her focal character, was airing some truths that folks back in Jackson would rather leave unacknowledged and unspoken. Like Kathryn, I didn't write Girl Trouble thinking that I'd have an audience of old friends and family to eventually answer to, and I was naïve in my assurance that they'd be able to parcel the real inspirations for the book from the characters I'd made up entirely.
Kathryn's admission segued well into a later question from an audience member, about what we were working on and whether we felt pressure from editors to produce books, or certain kinds of books. Inman joked that he felt sorry for writers whose books had made money, because then their editors would expect them to produce a second, similar sort of book.
He turned to Kathryn. "I'm sorry," he deadpanned, to a lot of laughter.
But I wonder: Is there a delightful carelessness to a first book? An energy that seems to be audacity but may, in fact, just be naiveté?
I'll end with just a few thoughts and facts about the Women's National Book Association and the pleasure of seeing 150 people -- mostly women, a few men -- gathered in celebration of what we keep hearing, exhaustingly, is a dying art. The WNBA was founded in 1917 when women booksellers were excluded from participating in the male Bookseller's League. Today, women dominate the publishing industry.
Jill Tardiff, the WNBA's National Reading Group Month chair, included in her introductory comments this quote from Ian McEwan: "When women stop reading, the novel will be dead." It would be a cliché to end this dispatch from Nashville with a truism, perhaps not even true, that "the novel is alive and well." But it was good for the soul to see so many gathered in celebration of storytelling and storytellers, and I'm glad I was able to count myself among their number.
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