Local and national authors descended on Jackson for the second-annual Mississippi Book Festival last month.
I missed the inaugural year of the Mississippi Book Festival in 2015, but I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. Similar to my home state of Louisiana’s Book Festival, Mississippi’s takes place on the Capitol grounds with the chance to see and hear authors in the same spaces frequented by lawmakers. Dubbed a “Literary Lawn Party,” the festival held in Jackson is a full day of more than 200 authors and 30 panels.
Blogger Tamara Welch and I met the night before for dinner at Table 100 in Flowood to come up with a game plan. Over Mississippi Peach martinis and shrimp and grits, we decided to split up in the morning and then meet back for Southern Fiction Today and Book Club Picks in the Methodist Church Foundery. It soon became apparent that we would need to arrive early or save seats, as the state’s book lovers had some out in droves.
For me, the morning started off with “The Fire This Time” panel (pictured above) moderated by Jesmyn Ward. Named for a new collection of essays and poems about race was edited by Mississippi native Ward, the panel brought together several contributors to the book, including Honoree Jeffers, Kima Jones, Garnette Cadogan and Kiese Laymon. Continuing James Baldwin’s 1963 examination of race in America, the writers proceeded to have one of the most important discussions happening in our country right now.
“Americanness is rooted in deception,” Laymon said, before the discussion delved into how it feels to be a black writer and constantly have to consider race, the public perception of black joy and Jones’ fears about traveling alone as a black woman in our current climate.
An especially chilling moment was when Laymon pointed out the Confederate flag standing just to the right of the panel box in the Old Supreme Court Room. “In this space where lots of black bodies have been terrorized, telling white folks they need to feel bad for what they’ve done isn’t the only thing that needs to happen,” he said.
Following the “fire” was “Southern Fiction Today” (pictured above) moderated by My Sunshine Away author M.O. Walsh. Including Lee Clay Johnson, Brad Watson, Paulette Boudreaux, Ed Tarkington and Steve Yates, the group is basically a who’s who in Southern lit today. They talked about writing about the South from afar — Boudreaux said that even though she moved from Mississippi to California as a teen, the stories she wrote that felt the most real were set in the South — whether it’s possible to define Southern fiction and what’s missing in Southern lit right now (answer: urban stories).
As associate director of University Press of Mississippi, Yates said when the state lost Eudora Welty and Willie Morris in the same year, people wondered what would happen to Mississippi literature. “There were five different novelists in the state that published that year. I’m not fretting any more,” he concluded.
Next, I ducked out of the rain to quickly sit in on a panel about “Willie Morris and His Books” inside the Methodist Church, where Welty once attended Mass. His widow, JoAnne Prichard Morris, told tales related to North Toward Home. I headed back to the Foundery for a packed “Memoir” panel with Ellen Gilchrist only to find out she was a no show. That meant I could make it back inside the Capitol for “Mississippi Noir.”
Published in August, Mississippi Noir is the latest story compilation from Akashic Books with pieces written by Michael Farris Smith, Mary Miller and Megan Abbott (who spent a year in Oxford as John Grisham writer-in-residence). Smith, whose new novel Deception Road comes out in February, said “Mississippi has got to be the most damned complex place on the planet. It’s a very noir state but has all of this hope somewhere.”
Some of the panelists (pictured below) admitted they had to Google “noir” to find out what it meant, but it turns out that most of them had stories about characters stuck in dark places where the stakes are really high. RaShell Smith-Spears’s story in the collection focuses on moral ambiguity, while John Floyd’s piece about a night stalker on Hwy. 25 was inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” I heard copies of the book sold out after the panel.
Alas, there were seats to save before “Book Club Picks” started. As the room started to clear out after “Memoir,” I grabbed two seats on the second row. This panel was aptly titled, and I promise these authors and their books have all been discussed in one book club or another around the country. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest was the “it” book of spring, while Anton DiSclafani’s The After Party was one of the best books I read all summer. I hadn’t heard of Natashia Deon’s Grace, but reserved it at the library as soon as I got home. Same goes for Ashley Warlick’s The Arrangement about M.F.K. Fisher’s affair. And Southern lit book club queen Karen White needs no introduction, but it was nice to meet her in person after conducting summer Twitter chats and putting her books on our reading lists all these years.
Mary Laura Philpott made for a hilarious interviewer, and the panel felt like a giant book club discussion with about a hundred of your closest friends. Deon’s family was even sitting in the front row asking questions. The authors were brutally honest about their writing failures, rejected first titles and personal lives — and all agreed that book clubs, independent bookstores and readers were to thank for their success.
It was a high note to end the festival on and a wonderful day of talking books and reading in Mississippi. I had a three-hour drive home ahead of me, but I also had a new reading list a mile long, a signed book by M.O. Walsh and only two months to go until I could repeat the experience at the Louisiana Book Festival on October 30.
All photos by Deep South except for “Southern Fiction Today” panel by Tamara Welch. See video from the festival on our YouTube channel.