Founded in 1989, the Southern Festival of Books is entering its 32nd year. The event, run by Humanities Tennessee, a state government cultural agency, is held every October over three days at the Nashville Public Library and its adjacent plaza. (The 2020 edition is set for October 9–11). Last year’s festival hosted more than 225 authors on five stages, as well as 60 exhibitors; a total of 30,000 people attended.
“It is one of the annual events we use to showcase Nashville as a cultural tourist destination,” says Serenity Gerbman, director, literature and language programs, at Humanities Tennessee. “Each year we try to bring a different conversation to the festival and focus on a theme. In 2019, that was ‘borders and belonging.’ ” Gerbman notes that Vanderbilt University and PEN America sponsored a special series of readings and discussions on the topic.
The venues at the festival, which are both indoor and outdoor, range from seating 50 to as many as 1,500 people. The event itself is completely free, though people are encouraged to buy the authors’ books, which are offered for sale onsite by Parnassus Books.
Gerbman underscores that the festival is just one of several literary activities supported by Humanities Tennessee, which is also responsible for running Salon@615, a yearlong reading series held in partnership with Parnassus; Student Reader Days, a program that sends writers to public schools in Tennessee; and Chapter 16, a website and literary news service that supplies book coverage to newspapers around the state. “These are several of the ways the organization is fostering a love of literature among all Tennesseans,” Gerbman says.
The Southern Festival of the Book isn’t the only annual event to attract a national audience. In nearby Franklin, Tenn., filmmaker and novelist Clay Stafford runs Killer Nashville, a four-day fair focused on mystery and crime writing. “In 2006, I was serving on the board of the Mystery Writers of America and realized that there wasn’t an event in Tennessee that focused on genre fiction,” Stafford says. “So I decided to launch one to take advantage of the wide range of local talent we have here in the local community.”
Over the years, the festival has grown from a modest undertaking to one that brings in more than 150 authors each year for panels, readings, and workshops and includes a moonshine tasting and a mock crime scene staged by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Ticket prices begin at $379. This year’s Killer Nashville is August 19–22.
“We have had writers ranging from Carol Higgins Clark to David Morrell, Jeffrey Deaver to Joyce Carol Oates, not to mention great local talents like Jaden Terrell, among many others,” Stafford notes, adding, “Southern gothic is alive and well.”