The Mississippi Book Festival
A stellar review of the first Mississippi Book Festival, held in Jackson. The news of its success will have book lovers who missed it marking their calendars for next year.
- by Carole McKellar
The book event began at 10 a.m. with a performance by the Jackson State University band on the steps of the capitol. John Grisham, arguably Mississippi’s most famous living writer, gave the opening remarks, and Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves welcomed attendees.
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.
Julia Eichelberger read letters from her book, Tell About Night Flowers: Eudora Welty’s Gardening Letters. Ms. Welty was a passionate gardener, and her home and garden in Jackson are well worth visiting. The letters in this book may have been about gardening, but they were also filled with love and humor. Hearing Ms. Welty’s letters read aloud was a pleasure and a reminder of what we have lost in this age of emails and tweets.
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.
In the afternoon, several of us attended a session on poetry moderated by Beth Ann Fennelly, a poet and director of the MFA program at Ole Miss. Catherine Pierce from Mississippi State, Richard Boada from University of Memphis, and Derrick Harriell from Ole Miss read from their newest poetry collections. I particularly enjoyed the style of Derrick Harriell, although his newest book, Ropes, is about boxing, a sport that doesn’t hold much interest for me.
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.
Katy Simpson Smith, a panelist in the Historical Fiction session, wrote The Story of Land and Sea, a novel set on the coast of North Carolina during the Revolutionary War. The book was recommended by a friend in attendance, so I bought a signed copy in the Lemuria Bookstore tent. This young woman is a gifted writer who tells an adventurous story in a poetic style. I just love this book. I regret that I could not get into her popular session.
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.