03 September 2016

A Literary Lawn Party

Two weeks ago today, while my friend Elizabeth Zelvin was entertaining our loyal SleuthSayers readers far better in this timeslot than I could've, I was in the middle of another kind of literary endeavor. From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on August 20, at the height of our summertime heat and humidity, I participated in what was billed as the state's biggest lawn party: the second annual Mississippi Book Festival, held on and around the grounds of the State Capitol Building in downtown Jackson. Also known as the state's Largest Gathering of Sweaty Writers and Readers.

A quick word of background. As some of you might know, Mississippi has more published writers per capita than any other state. In other words, you can't open your car door around here without bumping into another writer. (A lesser-known fact is that the Delta town of Greenville, Mississippi, has more published writers per capita than any other city in the nation--past and present examples include Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, Ellen Douglas, Hodding Carter, Beverly Lowry, William Alexander Percy, Jim Henson, and so on.) We might spit tobacco juice and talk like Forrest Gump and dodge alligators when we mow the back yard, but the ghosts of Faulkner and Welty will forever live in our libraries and bookstores.

My point is, there are a lot of writers here, and I think most of them--at least most of those who are alive and still pushing keys or pencils--came to the recent Book Fest. In fact we had plenty of authors from elsewhere as well. The number of attendees expected last year, at the first annual festival, was 1,000; more than 3,000 showed up, including John Grisham. This year, according to the official figures, some 6,200 people attended the many panels throughout the day, and several hundred more were outside and around the grounds. And, like last year, several attendees DFOed (in medical terms, they succumbed to the heat; in Southern terms, they "done fell out").

This time, more than 120 authors served on 30 different panels held in and around the Capitol Building (I was on the panel for the recently-released Mississippi Noir), and about 70 more were featured in an "Authors' Alley" venue, an area where self-published writers could display and sell their wares. Also on the grounds were tents for different publishers and bookstores here in the state--I was part of Dogwood Press's tent, along with our head honcho Joe Lee and fellow authors Randy Pierce and Valerie Winn. There were also additional activities for panelists, including a cocktail party at the Old Capitol Museum the night before, an authors' breakfast the morning of the festival, and an after-event celebration at a nearby restaurant/bar.

It was a long day, and as hot as Satan's pitchfork, but that surprised no one--this was, after all, mid-August in the Deep South. And I think everybody had a good time. I met a great many interesting people, renewed old friendships, sold and signed some books, guzzled a dozen bottles of water, and gave and received a lot of damp hugs. At the signing tent after my panel, I was fortunate enough to sit beside one of my longtime heroes, John Hart, who's written some of my favorite mystery/crime novels.

Now for my question. I've heard that a number of states have annual literary festivals like this--last year at Bouchercon I visited with a lady who was in the process of organizing a debut bookfest for Virginia. Have any of you gone to and/or participated in one of these, or something similar? Was it state-sponsored? Was it well attended? Did you find it worthwhile?

With this year's Bouchercon drawing ever nearer, our event the other day reminded me how much I enjoy this kind of gathering--being in the company of fellow writers and readers, and spending hours on end talking about nothing but stories and books and writing and the magic of fiction. And the great thing about B'con is that the focus is on mystery writing. What could be more fun than that?

I hope you'll be in New Orleans, I hope we'll be hurricane-free, and I hope it'll be drier and cooler than usual. And if it's not, I hope you won't DFO on Canal Street.

Either way, I'll see you there.


  1. Sounds like a great festival, John. And glad you got to talk about Mississippi Noir. Also hope there weren't too many DFOs. But d'ya think maybe the Powers That Be could move the fest to the fall so it's not so hot and humid. Or would that be asking too much ;) ?

  2. Sounds like a great day!
    Have fun at the Bouchercon.

  3. Hi, John --
    Sounds like great fun! Coincidentally, a friend who works at our local branch library went to Mississippi with her husband for this festival and brought us back both a program and a fan (with my dog Skip it looked like as the centerpiece). She had a blast!

    I'm interested in your comment about a woman organizing a "debut" bookfest in Virginia. George Mason is hosting our 18th literary festival this September, and the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville has been going for 13 years--so we've got a good representation here celebrating the state's authors (and more!) in a couple of ways.

    And hey, looking forward to seeing you at Bouchercon. Agree totally about these kinds of gatherings, and can't wait for the one in New Orleans.

  4. Paul, the "noir" panel was fun, and well attended. As for the schedule, I suspect that the goal was to have the festival before the opening of football season. Saturdays in the fall seem to be dedicated to college ballgames.

    Thanks, Janice. I've heard this upcoming Bouchercon will probably have the largest attendance in recent years because of its location. I grew up going back and forth to New Orleans a lot, and even lived there for a short time when I first started working for IBM, so it's easy to forget how popular a vacation spot it is, to much of the rest of the world.

    Art, I'm glad to hear your friend enjoyed her visit. Yep, Willie Morris (born in Jackson, lived in Yazoo City) and My Dog Skip are memorable, around here. As for the lady I met at the Raleigh B'con who was planning a Virginia Book Festival, I'll see if I can find her name. Josh Pachter and I visited with her quite a while one day. And I bet the Charlottesville festival is fun. There's a connection, I suppose, between that bookfest and the one here: if I'm not mistaken, Grisham, who lived in Mississippi most of life, now has a home in Charlottesville as well.

  5. Mississippi does have more than its share of writers, past and present. Actually, the South is fairly saturated with great writers - Flannery O'Connor, Harper Lee, James Agee, Truman Capote, Marjorie Kinnian Rawlings, Pan Conroy, etc... Those long hot summers are the equivalent of New England winters (or at least they were before TV and air conditioning/ central heating, respectively), very conducive to sitting still and dreaming, thinking, writing. (New England, I believe, can rival the South for great writers.)

    Anyway, sounds like you had a great time!

  6. Eve, you might be right about the effect of extreme temperatures on creative output. In our case down here, the heat probably drives us inside (stumbling and panting) to cool off and write stories.

    Seriously, though, I think attendees did indeed have a good time. There were a lot of tents and shade trees, and--as you said--plenty of air-conditioned panels and cubbyholes to take a break in. I think organizers were delighted that almost 7000 folks showed up.

    Flannery O'Connor remains one of my favorite Southern writers, and Conroy too. Some of the stories/novels of those two are pretty offbeat, but hey, maybe that's to be expected!

  7. It sounds like a wonderful festival, John, except for the heat--I'd have a hard time handling that. But then, I grew up in Buffalo and have lived most of my life in northern states. Adjusting to Virginia summers has been more than challenging enough. (I love Virginia winters, though--or, as my husband and I often say, "What winters?") Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing you at Bouchercon!

  8. John, I did not know that about the number of Mississippi writers! Sounds like you had fun! Yes, I am a big fan of Flannery O'Connor, one of the most offbeat of legendary writers (and that's coming from a guy who worships at the graven literary shrine of H. P. Lovecraft!)

  9. Thanks, Bonnie--looking forward to seeing you there too! Hard to believe it's only week-after-next.

    Yep, you would've been uncomfortable at our big get-together here. I guess it's funny that I'm never bothered much by the heat--but I can't STAND winter weather. I can look at pictures of snow in Buffalo and get cold. And IBM sent me to Alaska six times, several weeks per trip, at all times of the year. You should've seen me, up there!

  10. Jeff, we do boast tons of writers from this crazy state: Carolyn Haines, Thomas Harris, Donna Tartt, Terri Blackstock, Ace Atkins, Tennessee Williams, Robin Roberts, Kathryn Stockett, Greg Iles, Ellen Gilchrist, Oprah Winfrey, Dean James, Zig Ziglar, Steve Yarbrough, Michael Kardos, John Grisham, Eudora Welty, Sonny Brewer, Stephen Ambrose, Bill Fitzhugh, Walker Percy, Beth Ann Fennelly, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Jill Conner Brown, Tom Franklin, Charlaine Harris, Charles Wilson, Trent Lott, Richard Ford, Beth Henley, Jimmy Buffett, Richard Wright, Jerry Clower, Nevada Barr, Sela Ward, John Barry, Rick Bass, Willie Morris, William Faulkner, Elizabeth Spencer, Shelby Foote--and that's just off the top of my head.

    And yes, I'd forgotten you're a Lovecraft guy. Thanks for stopping in, today!

  11. Fun reading and remembering. And you can add a bunch of children's book writers to your list of Mississippi authors. We are plentiful.

  12. Thanks, Augusta!--you ARE plentiful. (And it was a great pleasure meeting you, at the breakfast.)

    I shouldn't have tried listing those Mississippi writers, off the cuff--once I got started I couldn't seem to stop, and I left out a lot of names. Probably misspelled a few, as well.

    Thanks for checking SleuthSayers! We're a bunch of mystery writers, but now and then we (I, in particular) wander off the subject a bit.

  13. Hi, John — I think I figured out who you were talking with about a Virginia festival: Jane Kulow, who's the head of the festival in Charlottesville. Last year was her first festival at the helm (instead of the first year of the festival itself) and she was at Bouchercon scouting writers and laying groundwork for some plans.

    Another mention: For several years, North Carolina (my home state) rotated a literary festival at the three big triangle universities: NC State, UNC and Duke--every two years, I think it was. But I don't think that tradition carried on, unfortunately.

    Again, thanks for the fun post!

  14. Art, you're right--I think that's who it was. She said she was actively seeking information for a future festival like the one we'd just had. Though I thought she said she was planning a new festival, she might've been talking about adding onto to the Charlottesville fest. Either way, I hope it's a great success.

  15. I spent about three years in Mississippi, for the first few months in Southhaven, but most of the time in Senatobia. That's where I was living when I sold my first novel. Alas, not being a native, none of the state's literary DNA was bred into me.

  16. Michael, we'll sure claim you, old friend. Southaven's a good place--I've done signings at the Books-A-Million there several times. (And your literary DNA seems to have worked just fine.)


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