The Mississippi Book Festival
- by Carole McKellar
The inaugural Mississippi Book Festival, held at the State Capital Building on August 22, was a resounding success. An estimated 3,750 people attended the one day festival featured as a “Literary Lawn Party.” More than 100 writers participated in 22 panels with topics that ranged from “Comics and Cartoons in Mississippi” to “Poetry.” The lawn of the capital was dotted with tents under the shade of magnificent oak trees. The tents featured authors signing books, booksellers, publishing companies, and state agencies. The festival included live music throughout the day and food trucks served the crowd. The actual literary panels were held inside the historical, stately capital and in the sanctuary of nearby Galloway Methodist Church.
Six members of my Bay book club – Cindy Williams, Archana Sharma, Allison Anderson, Ann Weaver, Angela Sallis and I – traveled to Jackson for the event. We attended panel discussions based on our individual interests or the availability of seating. The crowd at the festival surpassed expectations, so all of the sessions filled quickly.
Eudora Welty and Margaret Walker Alexander, both Jacksonians and contemporaries, were well represented at the festival. Angela Sallis and I particularly enjoyed a session titled “Eudora Welty: Letters, Flowers, Loves, and the Latest Scholarship.” Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan read from their book Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald. These two great friends wrote frequently of their lives, work, and world events. The letters in the book date from 1970 through 1982, when Alzheimer’s took Mr. Macdonald’s ability to read and write.
Ann Weaver and Archana Sharma attended a panel on African American history that they considered a festival highlight. Alysia Burton Steele, author of Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom, told fascinating stories about her late grandmother and other women from the Delta. Ann’s favorite writer in that session was Stephen A. Berrey, author of The Jim Crow Routine: Everyday Performances of Race, Civil Rights, and Segregation in Mississippi. She was interested in Mr. Berrey’s research on the unwritten rules people of different races follow in our interactions with each other.
Seven hundred people crowded the sanctuary of Galloway Methodist Church for a session titled “What Reading Means for Our Culture” featuring journalist Jerry Mitchell in conversation with John Grisham and William Ferris. William Ferris founded the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss and is now the director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina. Mr. Grisham and Mr. Ferris spoke about Mississippi’s rich literary history and what reading means for us today. Mississippians are part of a storytelling tradition that was amply displayed on the stage that day.
All the members of my book group thoroughly enjoyed a late afternoon session on Southern popular fiction with four writers who kept us laughing for an hour. The panelists were Julie Cantrell, Patti Callahan Henry, Mary Kay Andrews, and Joshilyn Jackson. I haven’t read any of their books, but I’ve put them on my reading list.
There were so many writers that I respect who participated in this festival. I have written in the past about Carolyn Brown, Margaret McMullan, and M.O. Walsh, all of whom were panelists.
The 5 p.m. closing session was moved back to Galloway Methodist Church to accommodate the large crowd that stayed until the end to hear a discussion of our literary heritage and its significance for writers and readers. Greg Iles, Ellen Gilchrist, Steve Yarborough, and Julia Reed are native Mississippians who have achieved success writing about our state. Bill Ferris did a fine job of moderating although these talented storytellers needed little encouragement to entertain the audience.
Visiting with friends, reading, and talking about books are at the top of my list of entertainments. The first ever Mississippi Book Festival filled all of those requirements and then some. I look forward to the event next year and anticipate that it will be bigger and better. Thank you to the sponsor of this column, Scott Naugle, owner of Pass Christian Books, who served on the board of directors for the festival. For more information, go to the festival website.