Mississippi Indies Have High Hopes for First Annual Book Festival

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The first annual Mississippi Book Festival to promote literature, libraries, and literacy in the state will take place on Saturday, August 22, at the State Capitol in Jackson.

The nonprofit festival, which was organized by Jackson-based Lemuria Books, the University Press of Mississippi, the Mississippi Library Commission, and other state groups, will feature more than 70 authors who will read, sign, and participate in 20 unique panels. The festival will also offer more than 50 exhibitor booths, including a number of Mississippi’s independent bookstores, as well as themed tents, music, food, and children’s activities.

Celebrating the state’s independent bookstores is a key component of the festival, and all of the state’s indies have been invited to exhibit and sell books on the grounds. Two booksellers — Turnrow Book Co. owner Jamie Kornegay, author of Soil (Simon & Schuster), and Square Books co-owner Lisa Howorth, author of Flying Shoes (Bloomsbury) — will also appear as participating authors.

In addition, the festival’s Board of Directors includes several indie bookstore owners: John Evans, the owner of Lemuria Books in Jackson; Kornegay, whose Turnrow is in Greenwood; Richard Howorth, co-owner of Square Books in Oxford; and Scott Naugle, co-owner of Pass Christian Books/Cat Island Coffeehouse in Pass Christian.

Festival Executive Director Holly Lange expects crowds for the August 22 event will be in the thousands, and close to 200 volunteers have already signed up to help on the day of the festival, said University Press of Mississippi Assistant Director/Marketing Director Steve Yates.

Lange, a professional event planner and community volunteer whose past projects include Jackson’s popular Jubilee!JAM concert, was instrumental in facilitating the festival’s major publicity coup: John Grisham has agreed to host the festival’s official kickoff.

“Having John Grisham participate just takes the festival to a whole other level,” Lange said. The writer of internationally bestselling legal thrillers — a Mississippi resident — will also appear on the panel “What Reading Means for Our Culture: Reading, Writing and Journalism’s Influence in Mississippi.”

The inaugural Mississippi Book Festival has also booked the state’s former governor, Haley Barbour, author of America’s Great Storm: Leading Through Hurricane Katrina (University Press of Mississippi, August 10), in addition to well-known authors from Mississippi and beyond, including Sara Gruen, Bill Ferris, Rick Bragg, Ellen Gilchrist, and Steve Yarbrough. Self-published authors will also have a venue at the festival, which will conclude with a panel featuring Mississippi’s Greg Iles, an early supporter of the event, whose new book is The Bone Tree (William Morrow).

“I think the thing that has excited me the most about this festival is that it is a festival for the readers,” said Evans. “Here in Mississippi, we have lots of festivals sponsored by the universities, which I think is great, but they are possibly a bit more academic than my hopes for this festival.”

According to Kornegay, there are many talented young Mississippi writers on the rise, such as Jesmyn Ward, winner of the National Book Award in 2011 for her novel Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury), and many in the state recognize that.

“We have had this great literary tradition in Mississippi for years,” said Kornegay. “Writers my age who are publishing now grew up on authors like Willie Morris, Larry Brown, Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Barry Hannah. As these folks started dying off, people were wondering when [the scene] was going to flare back up. And now, in the last few years, it has really taken off.

“One reason [the festival] works is that Mississippians value our writers and books. Despite its reputation, it’s a very literate place. People here really love stories, and we really celebrate our writers.”

For his part, Naugle believes the festival will help demonstrate to those who view Mississippi only through the lens of its racist history during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s that there is so much more to the state. “Too often that’s the singular focus through which we are viewed,” he said.

“Overall, I think the festival sends a message to folks, not only within Mississippi but certainly out of Mississippi, that there is a tremendous set of intellectual resources and a literary legacy here in the state. I’m very proud that a group of folks from across the state all came together to mount this for the first year. They have put together something that I think everyone in the state can be proud of.”

During the festival, participating authors with ties to Mississippi will connect with readers across a diverse range of topics and literary genres, including the Civil Rights Movement, history, short stories, poetry, romance, sports and the outdoors, children’s books, biography, literary fiction, Southern popular fiction, comics, and the Civil War.

Evans noted that independent booksellers have been using the flourishing Mississippi Books page in the Jackson-based Clarion-Ledger newspaper to advertise the festival and are also promoting it on social media. In a July 11 article in the Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi author Jere Nash, who chairs the festival’s Board of Directors, said the idea originated in the spring of 2013, with a small group meeting informally to explore the possibility of launching a state book festival.

Nash, the author of Mississippi Fried Politics: Tall Tales From the Back Rooms (Red/Blue Publications), explained, “The idea was hatched over lunch between Leila Salisbury, director of the University Press of Mississippi, and me. It gained enthusiastic support from John Evans, owner of Lemuria Books, and was given initial support and funding from Malcolm White, tourism division director with the Mississippi Development Authority.”

Grants, organizational help, and promotional support were provided by cultural organizations in the state like the Mississippi Humanities Council and Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Festival support has also come from state government, including funds authorized by the Mississippi Legislature, and other state agencies like the Mississippi Department of Archives and History; however, the stand-alone nonprofit has also raised much of its funding privately.

“We hope in the first two years that it pays for itself,” Lange said, and remains free and open to the public. In future years, organizers will donate the festival’s profits to literary initiatives in the state, from bringing books to children in low-income schools, to supporting Mississippi public libraries, to connecting authors and readers through literary events year-round.

“Eventually the board of directors will decide what we do with our proceeds,” Lange said. “We want to help public libraries and librarians as well as help young writers develop their potential: those are the areas we’re looking to focus on in the future.”

Since the idea of a festival was broached in 2013, organizers have put in over two years of preparation and research, including meetings with organizers of book festivals in three different states: the Louisiana Book Festival, Humanities Tennessee’s Southern Festival of Books, and the Arkansas Literary Festival.

Yates said the Press used its connections with authors to lock down panel moderators — mostly writers — who in turn used their own connections to engage some of the most up-and-coming authors based in the region, all of whom have published or who will publish a book within the year.

A full listing of participating authors and a schedule of panels, including a recently added panel on Harper Lee, can be found on the festival website. For further information, e-mail info@msbookfest.com