Fifty-three authors and 700 attendees gathered at Tivoli Theatre in downtown Chattanooga this past weekend for the 17th biennial Celebration of Southern Literature. This year marked a change in name as celebration took the place of conference in the title, and a celebration it proved to be. This year's theme echoed the Southern Lit Alliance's tagline, "Great Story Lives Here." Twenty-two panels, including Losing the Thread, What is Southern These Days, and a variety of southern readings, showcased the power of southern narritive. An intimate gathering, authors like Ron Rash, Allan Gurganus, Richard Bausch, and Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheewey mingled with attendees, answered questions, and kept the audience in near non-stop laughter throughout the three-day event. The stage reflected the mood, forgoing the usual set for a more inviting backdrop on loan from local furniture shop, Fowler Brothers.
One of the liveliest events of the celebration was an evening of song and story with Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle and Marshall Chapman. The authors and songwriter performed a portion of their play, The Good Ole Girls, on stage, and their efforts were rewarded with a standing ovation. Of the celebration's appeal, Smith said, "Part of it is that it's like a family. It's here to encourage readers and writers throughout the south. Celebration of Southern Literature is a legacy." Wild Hare Books, the participating bookstore set up in the lobby of Tivoli Theatre, noted that McCorkle's new book, Life After Life, sold out after the performance.
Faulkner, Hemingway, and O'Conner were quoted and credited as inspiration, while Roy Blount Jr. spouted bad poetry for the fun of form, reciting, "As free as cherry blossoms, I hit a dozen opossums." The road to writing proved an open forum, and the authors on stage were happy to provide a variety of roads to creation. Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha author and Chattanooga native, explained how when he writes, comfort is key. Golden said he crafted his bestseller with his feet up, and his keyboard or cat on his lap. He noted, "You just have to avoid certain music that provokes the cat."
The Southern Lit Alliance offered an invitation to any and all students wishing to attend for a day, for a fraction of the ticket price.
Friday brought a youthful livelihood to the crowd, as 150 students from Signal Mountain High School, Hixson High, East Hamilton School, and Bledsoe County High School joined the festivities.
Numerous attendees remarked on the intimate feel of the celebration, and how it elevated the experience. Clyde Edgerton, who provided an impromptu blues performance, and moderated a conversation on How Literature Saves Us, said, "I take notes at this conference for myself and my students. Even if were not a writer I believe I'd come here for a fresh reminder about what remains good and insightful about human beings. Plus I get to see and laugh with old friends." The crowning moment of excellence came during the keynote lunch on Saturday when Pulitzer Prize winner Beth Henley was awarded the 13th Cleanth Brooks Medal. Ron Rash said of the moment, "The highlight for me was the so richly deserving Beth Henley being awarded the Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement."
Serendipity also lent a hand at the Celebration of Southern Literature. Tommy Moore returned to the Celebration of Southern Literature for the second time. "I'm just a librarian from Richmond," he said. Moore has a passion for southern grit literature, in particular author Larry Brown. Moore shared that Brown's works are "a key to the universe," and he previously pilgrimaged to Brown's hometown outside of Oxford, Miss. While there, he met Brown's family, and was lucky enough to experience his own miracle on Brown's pond, fishing on the banks where his hero once stood, reeling in his own prize - a catfish. As Moore expounded on the greatness of Larry Brown, he was interrupted by a passing attendee who overheard his enthusiasm. The passerby was Brown's former editor, Shannon Ravenel. Ravenel was on hand to introduce the documentary, The Rough South of Larry Brown. Moore said of the chance meeting, "Now that's what I call grace."