Mississippi’s Literary Lawn Party

By Julie Whitehead

Rebecca here—happy to share with you news of the literary festival world. Yes, it’s that time, the season for writers of all stripes to join with readers of all stripes and unite in unabashed book-love. Here in the RVA, we’re gearing up for the 17th Annual James River Writers Conference. Can’t make it to River City, I’ll bet there’s a festival near you. Here, Julie reports from Jackson, Mississippi.

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Early morning, August 17, 2019, I drove to the corner of Mississippi and President Streets, where Mississippi’s Beaux-Arts style New Capitol Building (built in 1903 for $1 million) sits on a tree-filled lawn. White tents were already going up on the grounds, preparing to house exhibits for the fifth annual, free Mississippi Book Festival. 

The inaugural festival, held in 2014, featured four venues in the Mississippi State Capitol Building. By the second year, the event spilled over into Galloway Memorial United Methodist Church, known in literary circles for being Mississippi short story writer Eudora Welty’s home church. Now the festival has eight venues for author panels at the Capitol Building and Galloway. 

Panel topics are diverse and eclectic: history, photography, Southern hospitality, sports, journalism, YA and middle grade books, Mississippi painter Bill Dunlap, mysteries, poetry, memoir, true crime, publishing, the Mississippi blues, LGBTQ+ perspectives, and picture books were among the non-literary novel topics under discussion throughout the day.

And while sometimes the big names at the festival—including, this year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Candace Bushnell, Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Patchett, and Dav Pilkey of Captain Underpants fame—may not have direct Mississippi ties, many more who attend do. These included New York Times bestselling authors Greg Isles and Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give and On The Come Up, along with Natasha Trethewey, America’s former poet laureate.

New to the festival this year was a series of kid-friendly events, including a talk by Pilkey, awaited by a line of people the length of two city blocks. For its fifth year, early festival kick-offs happened in other parts of the state, and in the Jackson Metro area, 5,600 students enjoyed talks by Pilkey and Sotomayor, with each child receiving a free book.

The astounding part of the Mississippi Book Festival—the crowds. In a state with historically low literacy levels, the book festival attracted more than 9,700 guests this year: from young children wearing capes to adults sporting gear from most of the colleges in the state. Then there were the volunteers from AmeriCorps and the hundreds of attendees who drove or flew many miles to be here. All book people! In addition, each year C-SPAN brings many of the festival’s panels to a nationwide audience.

More than 270 authors attended the festival either as panelists or in the Author’s Alley booksellers’ tent. The Alley draws a diverse cadre of authors, among them my friend T.K. Lee, who was selling his new poetry collection, To Square a Circle. To increase engagement at his table, he asked visitors to pull a number out of the jar—for an on-the-spot personal reading of the poem in his collection that matched the number.

This year’s festival kickoff speeches were made in the Old Supreme Court chambers, where the unveiling of two Mississippi Literary Trail Markers honored Mississippi-born authors: novelist Richard Ford and crusading journalist Ida B. Wells. Last year, the Mississippi Arts Commission received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to set up a series of markers across the state to honor the contributions of its most prominent writers; the first marked Welty’s home in Jackson. Among the prominent guests at the ceremony were Malcolm White, head of the Mississippi Arts Commission, and Phillip Gunn, Mississippi’s Speaker of the House of Representatives, who worked the room.

At Galloway, I, along with a standing-room-only crowd, attended the Southern Humor panel, featuring Harrison Scott Key, Helen Ellis, and Mary Philpott. The Southern Fiction panel included four authors: Lisa Howorth, novelist and co-owner of Square Books, novelist Michael Knight, novelist Snowden Wright, and Mary Miller, author of Always Happy Hour and of Biloxi, a wry story featuring a complicated main character—Mississippi retiree, Louis—who has contempt for women in his heart. Miller said the secret to her being able to write so convincingly from the male point of view was having male readers look over the manuscript for lapses. While the Southern Fiction panel was somewhat sedate, the Well-Read Black Girl panel sounded positively raucous, with Angie Thomas telling the cheering audience that kids needed to read whatever they wanted to read—so as to develop a real love for it. 

The big-name talks I attended, by Sotomayor and Patchett, were completely different from the panels—with the authors speaking to a packed house in Galloway’s sanctuary. Security was high for the Sotomayor talk, where she discussed her memoir My Beloved World, told in adult, middle grade, and picture book formats, as well as her new book Just Ask: Be Brave, Be Bold, Be You, written as narratives of thirteen children dealing with physical and mental health struggles. The justice spoke of her childhood growing up in Puerto Rico and her motivation in writing her books to inspire new generations of children to believe in themselves and their special talents.   

Patchett, whose talk was titled “A Life Explored,” discussed little-known facts about the creation of her books—her “white-hot place of grief” from whence she produced Truth and Beauty and the tussle over getting just the right cover art for her graduation speech minibook, Now What?

With plans for next year’s festival already underway, here are some tips for attending: Make sure to hydrate before you come and plan to do so throughout the day. Blazing temps are often a hallmark of the event. On-site food trucks keep your belly filled. Plan ahead and look at the online schedule to plot out your panels and pick which authors you want to meet and get signed books from. (It’s best to come book-equipped—booksellers are there with all the titles you could want but the lines to purchase are long.)

If you’re tough enough for the heat—if you love books enough—and seeing so many people who write inspires you to write more, the Mississippi Book Festival just might be your cup of (sweet iced) tea. 

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Julie Whitehead lives and writes in Mississippi. Her work has appeared in various local, state, regional, and national publications. She holds BA and MA degrees from Mississippi State University and is earning an MFA from Mississippi University for Women. Find out more about Julie at her website.