Blue Moon Café Serves Up Authors Southern Style

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Spicy Old Favorites, Tasty New Treats (and Glimpses of Crazy Uncles in the Parlor)

Imagine that Stories from the Blue Moon Café: Anthology of Southern Authors, published this month by MacAdam/Cage, was a Southern baby boy. He could legitimately claim that his parents met, conceived, gestated, and named him all in bookstores below the Mason-Dixon Line. Fitting then, that his birth would be announced and his parents feted on August 16 - 17 at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi, and, then, at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi.

Sonny Brewer, the book’s editor and then some, owns Over the Transom: Used and Rare Books in Fairhope, Alabama.

John Evans, Lemuria’s owner, told BTW that the event, which drew 300 people over two days, "couldn’t have gone better … the chemistry was there and the place was full of energy and spirit." With over four solid hours of 10-minute readings, "the diversity of Southern writing came through and things never once got boring."

Some of the audience listening to the readings.

Authors mingled with patrons at a reception in the bookstore on Friday, August 16. Then, from 6:00 p.m. - 7:30 p.m. all those who could fit moved to an upstairs space called the Musiquarium for readings and beer. On Saturday afternoon, the authors signed books for two hours at the store, then retired to the Musiquarium for three more hours of readings. Despite the distractions -- a rowdy Friday night bar crowd, too many people in too small a space, the long succession of authors reading and signing, some unknown, untested readers -- what Evans and Brewer feared might be a "goat rodeo, too horrible to watch," turned into a singular, unforgettable literary festival.

Editor Sonny Brewer signs.

Of the 30 contributing authors, 25 attended the Lemuria reading (two are deceased), including the boldface names of Rick Bragg, Jill Connor Browne, Melinda Haynes, and Barbara Robinette Moss. But some of the least known authors were received most favorably.

Two such authors, without published novels, included Jim Gilbert, a former employee at Over the Transom, and Suzanne Hudson. Hudson, whose reading of her contribution, "The Fall of the Nixon Administration," moved many in the audience to helpless laughter, also moved MacAdam/Cage publisher David Poindexter to announce that the house was definitely picking up her novel, which, he said, would be in the fall 2003 catalog. The 10-minute time limits for each reading were strictly kept, and when popular Alabama author Frank Turner Hollon (The God File, MacAdam/Cage) used only seven minutes reading his three-page story "Left Behind," he treated the audience to a three-minute mime of eating a peanut butter sandwich.

On Sunday, August 18, at Square Books in Oxford, 18 of the authors came to sign books for the hundred people in the store. Store manager Lyn Roberts told BTW, "We had a lot of fun. The authors sat at a long table and people went to each one. There wasn’t enough time for readings but customers could meet and talk to all the authors."

Brewer developed the idea for the anthology from the large Southern Writer’s Reading event he organizes in Fairhope annually over the third weekend in November. In a recent interview, Brewer told BTW that this four-year-old "annual reading and literary slugfest" is now officially under the auspices of the Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts, a nonprofit organization funded in part by donations from the city of Fairhope and from the authors published in Blue Moon Café, in lieu of payment for their work.

This year’s Southern Writer’s Reading, scheduled for November 22 - 24 at the Old St. James Cathedral/USA Campus, will feature Stories from the Blue Moon Café. (For more on Fairhope, click here.)

Brewer began the anthology starting with the participants in the Southern Writer’s event, all of whom were termed "emerging writers," those with no more than two published books. His original plan was to produce a chapbook of these authors for those attending the event. Fortuitously, Poindexter of MacAdam/Cage was in the audience and offered to publish the book if Brewer could induce this group of writers to "come through with stories."

Pat Walsh, MacAdam/Cage editor, suggested expanding the circle to include the impressive list of authors in the town of Fairhope (population 15,000) -- C. Terry Cline Jr., Judith Richards, W.E.B. Griffin, Winston Groom, Jennifer Paddock, Sidney Thompson, Jim Gilbert, Tom Corcoran (formerly of Fairhope), Patricia Foster (a native of), and the late Monroe Thompson and Richard Shackleford. A few more authors were added by Brewer (who is legendary for discovering writing talent) because, as he put it, "I liked them."

Brewer ended up with 29 authors. "Not one turned me down except Fanny Flagg [also a Fairhope resident] because she was too busy with her new book, but she’ll do it next time," he said. The number seemed fine to Brewer but he felt some pressure to round it up to 30, with Pat Conroy in the final spot. "I didn’t know him personally and didn’t want to approach him through friends, but, then, like so many other remarkable turns in this whole endeavor, I happened to speak to bookseller Virginia Hobson Hicks from Brunswick, Georgia." Apparently, Conroy had done his very first book signing in her store and had just written an introduction to a book she was republishing. Within 24 hours, Conroy was on board.

Stories from the Blue Moon Café has now sold out its first printing of 10,000 and MacAdam/Cage is discussing a second volume with Brewer. Brewer, quoted in a front page story in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, notes that he believes that the reason the best writers are Southern writers is they have such a strong sense of place, "It’s a sense of kinship that still lives on. We’re all kin." In the same story, Barbara Robinette Moss said that, even more than a sense of place, "There’s so much more that happens in the South. Frankie never got shot off the front porch in Iowa."

William Faulkner, the Nobel Prize-winning Mississippi writer, said that, in the North, the crazy uncle was kept in the attic, while in the South he stayed in the parlor. Author Jill Connor Brown agreed, telling the Clarion Ledger, "We’re proud of our crazy people, you might as well laugh."

Brewer discovered the Blue Moon Café in the writings of Robert Bell, who used Fairhope (called Moss Bayou) as the setting for his classic book, The Butterfly Tree. In it, Venetia Sparrow, proprietor, writes her "thinkings" on the covers of matchbooks. She says that the bottom line is "it gets your stuff read."

In his introduction to Stories from the Blue Moon Café, Brewer writes, "A cafe like the Blue Moon, mirroring its namesake, doesn't come around often. So take your time. In Hemingway's short story 'A Clean Well-Lighted Place,' the old waiter says, 'Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be someone who needs the café.'" -- Nomi Schwartz

Twenty-five of the contributing authors attended the Lemuria reading.
(For number key, see photo below)

1. Jill Conner Browne
2. Rick Bragg
3. Beth Ann Fennelly (with daughter Claire)
4. Frank Turner Hollon
5. Barbara R. Moss
6. Doug Kelley
7. Sidney Thompson
8. Judith Richards
9. C. Terry Cline, Jr.
10. Jennifer Paddock
11. Bev Marshall
12. Marlin Barton
13. Steve Yarbrough
14. Patricia Foster
15. Silas House
16. Melinda Haynes
17. Suzanne Hudson
18. Sonny Brewer
19. Jim Gilbert
20. Brad Watson
21. Tom Franklin
22. William Gay