Already ready for next Southern Festival of Books

Friday, October 25, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 43

Nothing beats the Southern Festival of Books when it comes to Nashville’s annual events. I’m not even sure what comes in second.

My involvement with the festival, which recently completed its 31st edition, dates to the second in 1990. Among my very first assignments for The Tennessean was to interview one of the participants, Tom T. Hall, about the lineup of more than 140 authors expected. It included such notable authors as William Styron, Shelby Foote, Alex Haley and Sue Grafton.

“If this were a country music festival, we’d have Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, Hank Jr. and Reba McEntire,” said Tom T., whose own country credentials stacked up pretty well, too.

I was a fan from the get-go. During my 20 years’ absence from Nashville, every October brought pangs at the thought of what I was missing. (Kayne and I did manage to make it back once, in 2013, and heard one of our favorite authors, Bill Bryson. A hoot in person and on the page. And he has a new book. Why wasn’t he here this year?)

Part of the attraction for me is being among thousands of people who value reading. As someone whose entire working career depended on readers, I find them an agreeable (and necessary) lot.

Maybe they don’t like to read the kind of stuff I read. Maybe they don’t like to read the kind of stuff I write. (Shocking!) But as long as they read, they’re my kind of people.

There’s also been a bit of literary star-gazing involved for me. In 1993, for example, I got to introduce the British mystery writer Ruth Rendell, about as big a figure as there was in the genre. I still use that experience to correct people who mispronounce her name (it’s REN-dell, not ren-DELL).

But I’ve also found that among the treats is the chance to be exposed to someone perhaps not famous who should or will be. This happened in 1991 with Larry Brown, an Oxford, Mississippi, ex-firefighter who basically taught and willed himself to be a first-class novelist and short-story writer.

It happened again in 1992 with a little-known first-time novelist named Ann Patchett, whose “Patron Saint of Liars” intrigued me, and whose star turn speaking at the Book and Author Dinner stole the show from a field that included the celebrity singers-turned-authors Jimmy Buffett and Ricky Van Shelton.

Patchett was at this year’s festival, too, in the service of her latest novel, “The Dutch House.” She shared the stage with Margaret Renkl, another Nashvillian and an essayist and the author of “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

I was taking notes, as I do at all the sessions in the hope of picking up some tips that I could turn to my own use as a writer.

Listening to both Patchett and Renkl (whose essays also show up in The New York Times) I realized it would probably be most helpful if I could just manage to be a whole lot smarter.

Along those lines, listening at an earlier session that included Mary Laura Philpott, yet another Nashville essayist, whose new book is “I Miss You When I Blink,” I decided it would also probably be good to be a whole lot funnier, too.

She’s quirky. I bought her book.

Maybe the most rewarding session, in terms of introducing me to the largest number of books I want to read, had four panelists who’ve produced books about Nashville curiosities.

One was my former Tennessean colleague George Zepp, whose “Hidden History of Nashville,” one of several books by panel members I’m now in the process of getting my hands on. George’s book has been out 10 years. I’m more than a little embarrassed not to have read it already, so don’t tell him.

Others include “Lost Nashville” and “Notorious Nashville.” (Tidbit learned from the panel: Jesse James once lived in Nashville, and his house still stands. Near mine.)

While I’m confessing, I did some star-gazing at this festival, too. The session was for Samantha Power, a former ambassador to the United Nations, and was so packed that I didn’t even try to get in. But I did stand on my toes outside the door to catch a glimpse.

Not of Power, but of her tablemate: the actress Connie Britton, aka Rayna of television’s “Nashville” fame.

I don’t know if Britton has ever written a book. But she’s probably read one. That’s good enough for me.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at