What Does a Book Festival Have in Common with Disney World?

A couple of weeks ago I spent a day at the Southern Festival of Books – a Nashville institution if there ever was one – and that night fell into bed completely exhausted. I realized that the last time I had felt so stressed when attending an attraction had been the time we took the kids to Disney World.

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A busy Southern Festival of Books with the Tennessee State Capitol in the background

This is not immediately evident. People attending book festivals are people who like to read, and reading is a leisurely activity, right? What could be more relaxing than listening to some authors talk about their works?

Well, if that’s what you believe, then you haven’t met the serious book festival visitor. These people mean business. Armed with their schedule, they run from one auditorium to the other to score a coveted seat. The night before, they’ve already marked the sessions they’d like to attend and mapped the best route to get from point A to B. They listen with rapt attention to the author tell his or her anecdotes, but as soon Q&A starts, they abandon the talk early to race for the book signing line and park themselves right in front of the table – together with their gigantic wheelie bag loaded with books to be signed and personalized (and a list of questions to be asked then and there, long line behind them notwithstanding).

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Long lines at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville

It’s impossible not to be drawn into this frenzy. You see everyone collecting coveted signatures, and so you go about collecting them too. It was the same exact thing at Disney World: We had to absolutely take in everything on offer, and so we had an elaborate plan of splitting up to get different Fast Passes for different time slots. “You get the Buzz Lightyear pass while I stand in line for Arielle’s signature,” I would shout over my shoulder while already running off, one girl on one hand and navigating the stroller with the other, while my husband would usher the boys in the opposite direction.

Having underestimated the difficulty of finding parking at the book festival, I already had a late start. Huffed and puffed to the Public Library where Rick Bragg was to speak. Now, I had read All Over But the Shoutin’ years ago, and for some odd reason was convinced that no one but me was much interested in or had even ever heard of Rick Bragg. I thought he was my personal best kept secret. So it was disconcerting to stumble into the meeting room – standing room only – trying to catch my breath and finding myself in a huge and boisterous crowd of people, including two TV crews, waiting for the maestro to arrive.

A crowded room of eager Rick Bragg fans
A crowded room of eager Rick Bragg fans

It soon became clear why. Rick Bragg is not just a gifted writer, he also tells a brilliant tale in person.

“Nice to see you,” he began. “I like book folks. Book folks are inherently intelligent.”

He then started talking about his latest book, My Southern Journey.

“In my book on the very first page I have this metaphor… Or is it a simile? I actually can’t tell you whether it’s a metaphor or simile because the God’s honest truth is I don’t know which is which.”

Spoken from my writer’s heart. My kids talk about them all the time from English class, and I don’t know the difference either.

The room roared. He had our rapt attention.

He talked a little bit about the need to “make fun of yourself a little bit” or people won’t “stick with you.”

He spent the rest of the hour poking glorious fun at himself. This mainly revolved around his inability with tools like hammers and such, which was a particular misfortune as all the other men in his family were highly-skilled carpenters and handymen. No one ever let him touch any power tools, because they knew how it would end. But one day, far away from the prying eye of his manly brothers and uncles, he felt inspired to take off the chair rail in his house.

“You know how people have an angel sitting on one shoulder, and a devil on the other, both whispering in their ears?” he said. “Well, I have optimism and regret on mine.” “Optimism said ‘I can fix this’. Regret said “no I wouldn’t!”

Needless to say, the chair rail project turned into disaster. Ripping it off left huge holes in the wall which had to be fixed. He explained in great detail his plan for just that, involving some wooden blocks and gorilla glue, and he was pleased to find it worked quite well for the first hole.

“And because it worked so well, I decided to use twice as much glue on the second hole.”

I could totally relate to that bit. I have a husband with that same counterintuitive psychological wiring: If something worked well, no doubt it can be improved upon by tinkering with the method and using more of whatever you used the first time.

Rick Bragg proceeded to describe in delicious detail how it all went downhill from there. How he glued his fingers together with the woodblock firmly lodged inside the wall. How he had no belt like Marshall Dillon to use lasso-type to reel in his phone from the middle of the room where he’d left it. How he could already see the headlines: Local author dies glued to wall – semicolon – Obama blamed. How he called his momma imploring her not to tell anyone. “We hang up, she calls everybody she knows. Then my brother calls me, ‘I heard you glued yourself to a wall’. Because he loves me, he said, ‘that new glue will do that’.”

About writing for Southern Living, he had this to say: ” Yes, looking at me you can just tell I fit the image of Southern Living perfectly.” (He had unkempt hair, was quite overweight, and clad in jeans.) “But really, they must have lowered their standards. They have 16 million readers. There didn’t seem to be a downside in my writing for them.”

“So I just write about the stuff I write about. One time they asked me to write about Christmas trees. Now, if there is a story in Southern Living about Christmas trees, you expect it’s going to be elegant. But when I was growing up, we stole our trees! We were deforesting.”

At the end, he thanked us all with this: “I wouldn’t have a writin’ life if it wasn’t for you people.”

At which point I realized I should have skipped the Q&A like the other “inherently intelligent” book folks. I huffed and puffed to the bookstore kiosk to get my copy of My Southern Journey, happy to score one of the last ones. I stood in line forever to pay for it. Then on to the signing table, at which another even longer had formed, snaking half around the square.

Rick Bragg signing his latest book while chatting with fans
Rick Bragg signing his latest book while chatting with fans

Rick, full of buoyant charm, posed for selfies with everyone and their brother in between signing books, not even with the people he signed for but other authors who wandered up and chatted. It was a longer wait than at the Disney Tower of Terror. My feet were sore, I was thoroughly tired of all the standing. Luckily right then I spotted my friend and book blogger Jennifer Puryear of Bacon on the Bookshelf and we spent a nice half hour chatting about books and kids on break while I slowly inched toward the table.

I had about 10 minutes before the next talk, and spent that – guess what – waiting in another line, this time at one of the food trucks. So much for leisurely strolling around visiting booths and chatting with other authors. At least I didn’t have time to go green with envy that other local authors had seemed to score booths, and why hadn’t I investigated that for myself?

Once again I had to run – hot tea in hand, because, calamity, no one was selling any coffee! – to catch my next speaker, Geraldine Brooks. I LOVED People of the Book, and was sure I’d also love her new work, Secret of the Chord.  She wasn’t nearly as entertaining as Rick Bragg, but even if she had been, I would still have skipped out early, determined to be first in line for her signing afterwards. But wouldn’t you know it, another woman and her 17 books-to-be-signed had already beat me to the punch. Oh, what I wouldn’t have given for a Grande Nonfat Latte right then to sip while waiting in yet another line!

Geraldine Brooks at the Southern Festival of Books
Geraldine Brooks at the Southern Festival of Books

When Geraldine Brooks arrived, I was glad I’d waited. We got to chatting – though I still can’t bring myself to pose for selfies with authors, I find it so distasteful to ask – and it turned out her oldest son is 19, just like mine. “Isn’t this a great age,” she said, “when they finally start being human again, nice people who we actually might want to talk to?”

She has a way of getting to the essence of things. Just like a good author would. I felt like she was my soulmate right then.

How to tie this all together? Well, I guess the moral is: Go to the Southern Festival of Books if you’re ever in Nashville in October, it’s a wonderful event.

Just make sure you hire a valet who can stand in line for you at the signing table. Or at the least bring a folding chair. Oh, and a 3-liter thermos of coffee. Then all you’ll need is a good book to read – which you’ll already be holding in your hand!

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