In 2004, Humanities Tennessee made its move. It took the Southern Festival of Books from Nashville, where the event had been held annually, to Memphis, and despite some soggy weather, the festival made a major splash -- major enough for Humanities Tennessee, which organizes the event, to make Memphis the site of the festival every other year. (Major enough too for the 2004 festival to contribute over $600,000 in state and local taxes and for planners this year to anticipate more than 20,000 visitors.)
The 18th annual Southern Festival of Books is Friday-Sunday, October 13th-15th, and it's once more celebrating the written word in downtown Memphis at the Cook Convention Center and on the Main Street Mall -- celebrating big time, inside and out, with over 200 national, regional, and local authors who will be reading from their works, participating in panel discussions, and meeting one-on-one with readers at booksignings.
Booksellers and publishers will be among the 70 exhibitors. Outdoor stages will be the setting for songwriters and musicians, poets and playwrights. And a children's stage will include a puppet show, a magic show, and appearances by favorites such as Winnie the Pooh, Curious George, and Lilly (of purple plastic purse fame). See the festival's full program in this week's Memphis Flyer (which is helping sponsor the event), but see here: All events are free and open to the public, rain or shine.
"I don't even look at the weather," says Serenity Gerbman, director of literature and language programs for Humanities Tennessee. "My boss keeps track of it. I pretend like it's going to be fine, because there's nothing I can do about it."
What she can do is praise Memphis for its volunteer support and financial support: "Both have been strong," Gerbman reports. "Smooth" is how she describes this year's planning of the festival; "pleased" is how she describes the staff at Humanities Tennessee, who having been working closely with sponsors AutoZone, Archer Malmo advertising, the Assisi Foundation, Davis-Kidd Booksellers, the Community Foundation, and Mid South Reads.
But in case you don't know, what is Humanities Tennessee?
"We're a private, nonprofit organization, and it's important to note that," Gerbman says. "People do sometimes get confused and think we're a state agency like the Tennessee Arts Commission, but we're not. We get no funding from the state at all. We're most closely associated with the National Endowment for the Humanities, through whom we get the bulk of our funding every year.
"In addition to the Southern Festival of Books, we do the Tennessee Young Writers Workshop, a weeklong residential writing program for high school students. And we're involved in the Museum on Main Street program, in conjunction with the Smithsonian, which takes traveling exhibits, based on a particular area, to rural communities throughout the state."
The idea to alternate the Southern Festival of Books between Nashville and Memphis was one that had been "floating around." In fact, according to Gerbman, "a National Endowment for the Humanities evaluation years ago recommended we think about it. When Nashville wasn't available in 2004 because of construction at the festival's downtown site, it was a good time to explore the move to Memphis. We're a statewide organization -- with a statewide mission and a statewide focus. We felt our constituents would be better served if we took the festival -- Humanities Tennessee's largest annual event -- to another area."
Working to bring writers of national repute to the area is another matter, and this year the festival delivers with a wide range: Andrei Codrescu, John Hope Franklin, Julia Glass, J.A. Jance, Edward Jones, Garrison Keillor, Nicholas Lemann, and Barry Lopez. (In addition to all-time Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings.)
On the Southern literary front, count on Howard Bahr, Robert Owen Butler, Elizabeth Dewberry, William Gay, Kaye Gibbons, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Lee Smith.
Graeme Base, Memphian Alice Faye Duncan, Laura Numeroff, Deborah Wiles, and Paul Zelinsky are among this year's authors or illustrators of children's books.
And on the local front, fiction and nonfiction, Memphians or former Memphians, look for Richard Bausch, Marshall Bosworth, Erik Calonius, Tom Carlson, Lisa C. Hickman, Cary Holladay, Alan Lightman, Reginald Martin, Phyllis Tickle, James Perry Walker, and Treasure Williams. (And look to Oxford too: John T. Edge, Beth Ann Fennelly, Tom Franklin, and David Galef.)
No wonder Serenity Gerbman calls the literary scene in Memphis a "vibrant" one. The authors above testify to it. The 18th annual Southern Festival of Books is coming to prove it.
Southern Festival of Books
Cook Convention Center and Main Street Mall
Friday-Sunday, October 13th-15th
Free and open to the public