UNC Press at the Southern Festival of Books: Nashville takes us by storm

UNC Press staffers Susan Garrett and Beth Lassiter hit the 24th Annual Southern Festival of Books in Nashville this weekend (Oct. 12-14) along with a slew of UNC Press authors, a ton of books, and oh, about 30,000 people.

UNC Press authors making an appearance:

Here’s my take on the weekend’s action.

The Southern Festival of Books, October 12-14, 2012


10:00 am

An autumn rain has (mostly) blown over this morning and Beth and I begin setting up the UNC Press booth. We’re in a primo location right in the middle of the action on War Memorial Plaza in downtown Nashville. Events are happening in every direction: behind us in the War Memorial Auditorium, to the south at the Nashville Public Library, to the west in the Tennessee Legislative Building.  We’ve got 11 huge cartons of books to unpack!

10:45 am

Intrepid festival organizer Lacey Cook, of sponsor Humanities Tennessee, tracks down missing tablecloths. Set up can now begin in earnest.

12:00 noon

The Festival officially begins and the UNC Press booth is open for business. It doesn’t take a minute before customers and browsers begin to stop by. We think our “shop” looks pretty darn good.

UNC Press booth, Southern Festival of Books 2012
UNC Press booth

1:00 pm

Over 250 authors will be here this weekend, participating in readings, panel discussions, performances, and signings.  Headliners are Junot Diaz, R. L. Stein, Ben Fountain, Gillian Flynn, David Maraniss, and Damian Echols, to name a few.  We, however, are partial to our authors.

2:30 pm

Things are quieter now as downtown workers spending their lunch breaks perusing the festival head back to their offices. The nearby musicians’ stage blasts continuous country music all afternoon. My saving grace is the line of food trucks parked up on Charlotte Avenue—a carnivore’s delight of barbecue (Memphis-style), fried chicken and catfish, gourmet Mexican, Thai, and more.

3:00 pm

We chat with our neighboring university press vendors from the University of Tennessee, Baylor, Mercer, University of Georgia, Vanderbilt, and University of South Carolina. It’s clear to me UNC Press has the best catalog, hands down, but I’m not prejudiced or anything. With a weekend festival focus on the Civil War and the Emancipation, our titles shine.

4:15 pm

Hey, here’s Heather Andrea Williams stopping by to sign copies of her book, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery. Heather says she had a great audience and lots of questions during her panel discussion, “Ties that Bind: Slavery Identity and Family.” She shared the stage with John F. Baker Jr.

Heather Andrea Williams with visitor, Southern Festival of Books 2012
Heather Andrea Williams (L) with visitor

4:30 pm

Dang! While returning from a brief break, I just catch a glimpse of fast-moving country music star Naomi Judd and 15 or so hangers-on. She’s here on a panel about the Kentucky roots of country music. She has rather striking maroon hair.

6:00 pm

Time to pack it in for the evening. Though the forecast is good for Saturday’s events, we partially break down our booth, waterproof our books with plastic covers, and close up shop until tomorrow morning.

Beth starts to close for the evening, Southern Festival of Books, 2012
Beth starts to close for the evening

8:00 pm

Too tired to venture too far, Beth and I walk 2 blocks to Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant, a decades-old family business with a new (10 years) location in Nashville. With live country music cranking on their stage all night, Beth and I can only read each other’s lips for conversation. The chicken and waffles are pretty good; Beth says it’s tough being a vegetarian in Nashville.  There’s a little pig in everything.

Puckett's Grocery and Restaurant, Nashville, TN
Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant

10:30 pm

We fall asleep to the dull roar of Tennessee Titans’ and Pittsburgh Steelers’ fans still hootin’ and hollerin’ in the streets after the Titans’ big win last night, 26-23. I wonder if they’ll run out of bourbon here in Tennessee. . . .


7:00 am

Up and at ‘em early for a 9:00 am start to the festival. Intermittent sunshine begins to warm things up for a busy day. Coffee, please.

9:00 am

Hey, it’s author David S. Cecelski with a lovely box of pastries from nearby Provence bakery for us. Thanks, David! He’s on a panel this afternoon called “Agents of Liberty and Equity” and will speak about his just-published book, The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War.

David Cecelski and Beth, Southern Festival of Books 2012
David Cecelski and Beth

9:50 am

Debbie Moose and Kathleen Purvis stop by to sign some more of their books, Buttermilk and Pecans. They had good attendance at their talk, “Getting Fresh—Cook Your Best Southern Food.” Lots of customers stopping by to check out these first two books in UNC Press’s new Savor the South® cookbook series. Debbie and Kathleen are great sales people as well as cooks and authors!

Debbie Moose, Beth, and Kathleen Purvis, Southern Festival of Books 2012
Debbie Moose (L), Beth, and Kathleen Purvis (R)

12:30 pm

Paul and Angela Knipple arrive, fresh from their panel, “Tradition and Evolution in Today’s Southern Kitchens.” Their book, The World in a Skillet, is all about post-Vietnam War era immigrants to the South and the culinary traditions they brought with them.

1:30 pm

All this food talk is making me really hungry. And we are too busy to leave our booth!

Paul and Angela Knipple, Kathleen Purvis and Fred Thompson, Southern Festival of Books 2012
Standing: Paul and Angela Knipple; seated: Kathleen Purvis and Fred Thompson

1:45 pm

Great meeting Bill Finch for the first time, author of Longleaf, Far as the Eye Can See, a truly beautiful book about the longleaf pine forests that once covered 92 million acres of the southern United States. Yes, 92 million and now down to 3 million. (As a reference, the state of Georgia covers roughly 30 million acres. Wow.)

2:00 pm

Clearly, everyone is as enamored with the Longleaf book as we are. Bill signs lots of books today and engrosses lots of folks in lengthy conversation about these forests, past and present.

Bill Finch signs another copy of Longleaf, Far As the Eye Can See
Bill Finch signs another copy of Longleaf, Far As the Eye Can See

2:45 pm

NOT THAT FRED THOMPSON! Our North Carolina Fred Thompson, author of Fred Thompson’s Southern Sides: 250 Dishes that Really Make the Plate, causes confusion for Tennesseans. They do a double take when they realize Fred Dalton Thompson, their former Tennessee senator/actor (or is that actor/senator?) is NOT the author of this delightful cookbook. We’re glad our Fred’s photo is on the cover and we’re glad our Fred is who he is.

OUR Fred Thompson
OUR Fred Thompson

3:45 pm

David Cecelski returns to sign his books at the booth after a successful panel discussion with Nicholas Buccola and Devon Carbado.

4:15 pm

The Plaza is loud and busy with more music, readings on a stage down the way, and lots of lookers and buyers. So great to see people laden down with bags of books! The UNC Press booth is happily crowded.

Customers fill the booth while author Bill Finch eyes the camera suspiciously, Southern Festival of Books 2012
Customers fill the booth while author Bill Finch eyes the camera suspiciously

5:25 pm

Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War author James McPherson finishes his discussion on his new UNC Press book War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865. He’s here now to sign books. McPherson is pretty much a rock star when it comes to Civil War writing and we’re very proud to have him. Fans line up; his books sell out immediately.

A young fan discusses James McPherson's "War on the Waters" with his dad, Southern Festival of Books 2012
A young fan discusses James McPherson’s “War on the Waters” with his dad

6:00 pm

Time to wrap it up until tomorrow. Fred Thompson and Paul and Angela Knipple go beyond the call of duty and help us batten down the hatches on the booth—we expect wind and rain overnight. Beth tries to wiggle a table in tighter under our tent, but it collapses and all the books crash to the ground. We create a sort of bucket brigade to get 100 or so books picked up. Luckily, no books were injured in this process.

6:30 pm

The five of us head off to a reception and party for authors and vendors at The Arts Company a few blocks from the festival. Great contemporary art, food, and drink for all.

The Arts Company reception, Southern Festival of Books 2012
The Arts Company reception

7:30 pm

Fred, Paul, Angela, Beth, and I cram in the Knipples’ car and head to East Nashville for a delectable dinner at the trendy, 5-star, farm-to-table Lockeland Table. Can I just say that going to dinner with a bunch of food writers is a really good thing?  Check out the menu. I think we tried one of everything.

Lockeland Table delights us all
Lockeland Table delights us all

10:30 pm

We crash with happy stomachs and tired feet, wondering what tomorrow’s iffy weather forecast will bring.


11:00 am

Uh-oh. Things are looking a little dicey as we arrive for our last day. The wind is blowing steadily at about 25 mph this morning, with gusts to 40 mph. Our tent sides have completely come unmoored. Other tents have collapsed already!

Yep, I'm worried about the weather!
Yep, I’m worried about the weather!

11:45 am

It’s not getting any better. Tents and tarps are flying, and so are postcards, posters, signage, and even books. Now our entire tent is lifting off the ground and coming down with a loud crash. Needless to say, it’s not a good hair day.

12:00 pm

Author Randal Maurice Jelks blows by to say hello and quickly retreats to the safety of the Nashville Public Library, where he will participate in the panel “Reconciling Faith and the World: Biographies of Spiritual Journeys.”  He’s just published Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography. Luckily for the authors, the show will still go on—indoors.

12:15 pm

Lacey Cook from the festival arrives and tells us, “We’ve determined it’s not safe for you to be here.”  We have to say we agree.  Somehow we’re not interested in having ourselves or our customers impaled by a tent pole. Packing commences.

We aren't kidding about the wind.
We aren’t kidding about the wind.

3:00 pm

After trips back and forth for fun chores like buying more tape to secure our damp boxes of books, we say farewell to War Memorial Plaza and the Southern Festival of Books. Humanities Tennessee has created a well-coordinated and well-supported event with exceptional authors and vendors, 24 years running. We’re sorry to be cut short here today, but we’ve had a successful festival and a good time to boot.

7:30 pm

Finally at the airport after being blown around town for several hours. Thank you Humanities Tennessee and Nashville, we’ll see you next year!

Til next time, Nashville!
Til next time, Nashville!
Photo: Planetware.com