The What: From October 8th to the 10th, Memphis celebrates the written word by hosting the Southern Festival of Books. The annual event, now in its 16th year and normally held in Nashville, is one of the longest-running and best-know book festivals in the country.
Humanities Tennessee, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has invited a range of national and regional authors. Outdoor stages will feature actors, musicians, singers, and storytellers for adults and children.
The Where: Main Street Mall's Civic Plaza, with indoor readings, booksignings, and panel discussions held at the nearby Cook Convention Center.
The Who: Dozens of authors, including Rick Bragg, Robert Owen Butler, Janell Cannon, Andrei Codrescu, Clyde Edgerton, James Ellroy, Horton Foote, William Gay, Edward Jones, Barry Lopez, Jill McCorkle, Ridley Pearson, and Adriana Trigiani.
Look for some names with Memphis or regional ties too: Marilou Awiakta, Tina Barr, John Bensko, Marshall Boswell, Tom Franklin, Alan Lightman, Reginald Martin, Judy Ringel, Phyllis Tickle, and Emily Yellin.
The When: Friday, October 8th: noon-6 p.m.; Saturday, October 9th: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; and Sunday, October 10th: noon-5 p.m.
The Latest: For an updated schedule of authors and events,
go to www.tn-humanities.org.
The Audience: You there, young and old, the book-lovin' public.
The Cost: Free!
What Gives: This week's cover story on the book scene, Memphis-style. Courtesy of your alternative, The Memphis Flyer. Edited by Leonard Gill.
The South Unscripted
By John Branston
Cold Tree Press, 284 pp., $15.95 (paper)
By virtue of the fact that John Branston himself handled the publication details of this anthology volume of his journalism, he was able to A) hold the price down and B) exercise control over the content and design of the book. Potential buyers should be grateful on both counts. No finer collection of occasional pieces has been published in many a publishing season.
Yes, that last sentence is meant to be just as sweeping as it reads. Not "occasional pieces about Memphis" and not "occasional pieces about government, society, politics, etc." Not "finest collection of locally authored pieces." It's the best collection I've seen in a long time, period.
Disclosure: Branston, the weekly impresario of the City Beat column, is indeed my colleague at The Memphis Flyer, but I would read him with pleasure and gratitude even if he weren't.
Branston's lean and graceful style -- no doubt a correlate to his virtually invincible racquetball game -- was honed in some down-home wire-service work this Michigan native started doing about 25 years ago in Nashville with the now-defunct UPI. After a detour in Mississippi, he ended up in Memphis, where he logged time with The Commercial Appeal before coming to the Flyer in late 1990. Our gain.
Most of the work reprinted here appeared originally in the Flyer, though some free-lance pieces are here too, as is work done for the CA and for Memphis magazine, our Contemporary Media, Inc. stablemate, with whom Branston served a longish, and typically productive, stint as business columnist and de facto special-editions editor.
The range of the pieces gathered in Rowdy Memphis is extraordinary -- from profiles of Memphis mayors like Dick Hackett and the current incumbent, Willie Herenton, to revealing treatments of genuinely rough and rowdy sorts like the late convicted murderer Charles "Dago" Tiller and sui generis business tycoon William B. Tanner. Included too are remarkable panoramas of the casino industry and other features of our, and the country's, business landscape. No sociologist or M.B.A. could have written them so well or completely, and not even George Orwell (the Orwell of Down and Out in Paris and London) could have rendered a better first-person account than "Working Stiff in America's Distribution Center," Branston's witty, brief, but comprehensive take on several weeks spent doing hands-on labor in local warehouses and on assembly lines.
That experience gave the author both callouses and wisdom, and it is the combination of physical and intellectual awareness that distinguishes his work in general. So does the ability to synthesize from the several fields of his experience. Take this conclusion to an essay on Herenton: "Chuck Daly, one of several former head coaches who have worked for the Memphis Grizzlies, once said something very wise about leaving the Detroit Pistons after winning two NBA championship. 'Sooner or later, they just stop listening to you.'" Paragraph. "After 12 years, that's what's happened to Mayor Herenton."
Like nobody else, Branston understands the mechanics of a deal -- whether it's the horse trades that got Memphis' downtown Pyramid built or the sewer politics (literally) that accounted for suburban Cordova's growth spurt or the strategies that guide his sometime tennis partner, one Fred Smith of Federal Express.
Branston can assay the high and the low, the mere and the mighty with a keen and unpretentious eye. Says Branston in this book's concluding essay:
"I've concluded it's better for me to have a few influential friends, especially if they're the type who respect your independence. And because I get my say-so only once a week, I often do analysis and express my opinions. After 20 years in Memphis I've earned pundit's rights. I want to be in philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's 'stream of life,' free to go where I want to go, see who I want to see, and say what I want to say and put my name on it."
Good work if you can get it. Branston's got it. And now book-buyers can get it too -- at a bargain rate if I ever saw one. n -- Jackson Baker
One afternoon, following a conversation about how an author's reputation may flourish or languish with time, Memphis novelist Joan Williams concluded that what remained important at the end of one's life was simply to be remembered.
Williams, who died April 11th at age 75, dedicated her life to creating literature that prodded and poked and persisted in exploring the dynamics of human nature in a Southern context. Without the slightest whiff of pretension or condescension, Williams created characters whose epiphanies emerged from life day-to-day and whose greatest fear was a reckoning with isolation and loneliness. Author Lee Smith noted at the time of Williams' death that her work deserves a great deal more attention.
Williams' literature spoke of small, rural, Southern communities (The Morning and the Evening); of racial and sexual awakenings ("Spring Is Now" and County Woman); and of larger-than-life personalities -- Frank Wynn in Old Powder Man, who discovered how dynamite could form levees, and Jeffrey Almoner in The Wintering, who hoped to recapture youth and snuff out loneliness through an autumnal affair with a young woman.
In story after story, novel after novel, Williams' prose maintains a level of excellence and a quiet, subtle emotionalism that only an author with exacting standards can maintain. Williams was not a gimmicky writer of workshops and seminars but a natural talent whose stories came from within with a striking surety. A confidence that often was lacking in her personality was always evident on the page.
Born September 26, 1928, in Memphis, Williams spent her childhood, adolescence, and freshman year of college here. While a student at Miss Hutchison's School for Girls, Williams' writing ability was recognized but more important was the long-term friendship she established with Louise Fitzhugh, the niece of writer (and Memphian) Peter Taylor. Fitzhugh also became a writer, eventually publishing the children's classic, Harriet the Spy.
At the end of their college sophomore year, Fitzhugh and Williams decided to transfer from their respective colleges and search out a school suited to their literary pursuits. They turned to Taylor, who told them the best place in the country for them would be Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, but as it was all-male at the time, he suggested Bard College in New York.
Once at Bard, Williams worked for a time with author William Humphrey, who was her academic adviser. She was encouraged to enter the Mademoiselle College Fiction Contest and wrote "Rain Later" in one inspired rush -- a story William Faulkner described as "moving and true, made me want to cry a little for all the sad frustration of solitude, isolation, aloneness in which every human being lives, who for all the blood kinship and everything else, cant [sic] really communicate, touch."
"Rain Later" won the contest, and Williams went on to author five novels and a short-story collection.
During the summer of 1949, after reading The Sound and the Fury, Williams met Faulkner. Much has been made of this five-year relationship, and while clearly significant, Williams' real literary contributions appeared well after the affair was over. Even during its intensity, Williams maintained an independence that led to a scolding from Faulkner. Writers build on writers, he told her, and why, when he learned from others, shouldn't she?
When Williams moved back to Memphis in 1995, she was at the peak of a renaissance: Two novels had been reissued and two short stories appeared that year. "The Contest" and "Happy Anniversary" demonstrate new reaches as she explored marriages transitioning from youthful lovers to aging partners.
After a lifetime of work and despite awards and recognition -- Williams' first novel was a National Book Award finalist and her other books received favorable reviews from Louis Rubin, Robert Penn Warren, Joyce Carol Oates, and Doris Betts -- she saw herself as an underdog writer and championed others she felt similarly slighted.
Williams' literary career spanned 55 years. Her desire to be remembered seems a modest request for a writer who has given her readers so much. n -- Lisa C. Hickman
Hell's Half Acre
By Will Christopher Baer
MacAdam/Cage, 354 pp., $15
According to the story first reported a few weeks ago, a high school principal in Littleton, Colorado, threatened a 16-year-old student with suspension if that student passed out one more copy of Will Christopher Baer's first Phineas Poe novel, Kiss Me, Judas. This after the principal confiscated the student's remaining copies of Kiss Me, Judas and his one copy of Baer's new novel, again featuring Poe, Hell's Half Acre. This when the country was about to observe Banned Books Week.
Who is this 16-year-old? Who is Will Christopher Baer? Who is Phineas Poe? And what's the deal?
The student was a member of the "street team" organized by Baer's publisher, MacAdam/Cage, which enlisted fans to spread the word on Poe through free paperback editions of Kiss Me, Judas.
Will Christopher Baer is a writer who was born in Mississippi, spent his childhood in Montreal and Milan, spent his teenage years in Memphis, graduated from the University of Memphis in English, and got his MFA at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder. Today, he makes his home in California with his wife Penelope, a former staff member of the Flyer.
Phineas Poe is Baer's antiprotagonist, a marginally upright ex-cop who fell on some good times and terrible times when he lost his heart (and a kidney) to a high-heeled assassin-for-hire named Jude in Kiss Me, Judas. Penny Dreadful followed. Hell's Half Acre completes the trilogy. All three come in handsome hardback and at a price (15 bucks apiece) even a 16-year-old can afford.
The "deal" is this: Baer writes noir like there's no tomorrow, which is fitting, because it's something of a shock his sexed-up and/or strung-out characters survive another day -- and a good many of them don't. Not with the booze, the drugs, the gunnings, the knifings, and, in the case of Hell's Half Acre's opening scene, a scalping. Add to these Baer's nightmare portrait of America the unbeautiful and you've got a recipe that is one part bloodbath, one part social satire, and one part true romance, backed by black humor and dialogue the far side of Jim Thompson.
The Flyer recently talked by phone to the author.
MacAdam/Cage did you right. For starters, this is a nice-looking set of books.
The first two Phineas Poe books went out of print a year ago, and the rights reverted to me. I had the third book, Hell's Half Acre, written, but it was sitting in limbo. After I did an interview with writer Craig Clevenger (who wrote The Contortionist's Handbook), MacAdam/Cage contacted my agent to see about getting the new book and the first two back in print. It all happened really fast, all in the past year. The publisher's hoping people will collect all three.
Your Web site [willchristopherbaer.com] looks good too. How much of a hand did you have in it?
A bit, but it's the work of the guy who designed Chuck Palahniuk's site. The fans have been cool. A few weeks ago, we added a forum called "The Velvet," and a couple hundred people jumped on it from all over the place.
Were you surprised by the turnout?
I figured there were a few pockets of scattered fans. But yeah, it did surprise me, in a good way.
What's this with street teams?
The street-team concept has been mostly used by rock groups, who enlist the faithful to distribute free music and publicity kits. MacAdam/Cage printed 4,000 special-edition paperback copies of Kiss Me, Judas and sent them to something like a hundred street-team people who'd signed up. They're passing them out on campuses and in coffee shops and nightclubs. Stickers and postcards too, that kind of thing.
You do more than write fiction. You're also working in journalism.
I work at the Independent in Santa Barbara as copy chief. I'm pretty much a geek for words. You know what I mean? My parents instilled in me this obsession with grammar and punctuation from a pretty early age.
Speaking of, what's the word from your family on your writing? It can be rough-going.
My mother sometimes finds it a little dark. My dad really likes the books. Phineas Poe sort of grew out of a series of conversations I had with my father, I guess when I was in my 20s. He was a big fan of John D. MacDonald, who wrote the Travis McGee books. At the time, McGee was considered an antihero. He wasn't always a nice guy, but he's pretty tame by today's standards. We both loved Raymond Chandler too.
You've written that you're trying to write "under the skin." What did you mean by that?
Like James M. Cain and Albert Camus -- writers who wrote really tight in the first person, where you felt you were inside a character, where there was as little separation between reader and narrator as possible.
Concerning the violence in your work: You ever think you cross a line?
There have been scenes I pulled out or toned down, because I realized they were too dark, too graphic for no redeeming reason. Or maybe I was in a bad mood when I wrote them. I edit pretty harshly.
In Hell's Half Acre, you've got a character with an amputee fetish. That's a new one.
The first time I heard about it was that book by Katherine Dunn, Geek Love. Then someone pointed out that in a lot of my stories and all three Phineas Poe books, someone's having a body part violently removed -- an ear bitten off by a girlfriend or Phineas having his kidney stolen. It's invasive. It's traumatizing. But people are always searching for something they've lost -- like love or a sense of self.
I see from your Web site you've completed a short-story collection set in Memphis.
Yeah, but none of the characters are cops or professional assassins. They're cab drivers and students and bartenders and strippers. I think the stories capture the city pretty well.
Writing workshops. Yeah or nay?
They can be great. They force you into writing according to schedule, and the atmosphere can be intense; the competition, friendly. But they can also turn into group-therapy sessions.
Any chance we'll see Phineas Poe on film?
I've written the screenplay for Kiss Me, Judas. It's been bounced around, and every few months or so it looks like it's going to be sold. I try to stay out of it, not get caught up in it.
Who's the actor to play Poe?
Ed Norton, but he already did Fight Club. I've had nightmares of Charlie Sheen being cast, somebody completely wrong. When I'm writing these books, I'm seeing myself. n -- Leonard Gill
Best on the Bluff
When Jeff Crook, who's earned a reputation and a following as a fantasy novelist and the author of role-playing literature for D&D fanatics, announced that he was starting a literary journal for Mid-South writers, nobody knew quite what to expect. There may be a market for swords and sorcery, but wizards and warlocks aren't for serious writers, are they? Crook's literary interests, however, stretched far beyond lost worlds and hidden treasures, and his handsome Best of Memphis Anthology 2003 collected a range of Memphis-centric poetry and prose by a variety of accomplished local writers.
"Everything just went off surprisingly well for a first book," Crook says. "I'd never done anything like this before and didn't know what to expect. I won't see sales numbers from the publisher until later in October, so I'm not sure how successful it's been. But when we first came out, we had some real excitement."
Now the Best of Memphis Anthology 2004 is in the works, and Crook is busy working out a few remaining kinks.
"I didn't think the last anthology was bad, but I didn't think we were getting the very best of what our local authors have to offer," Crook says. He thinks this has something to do with the fact that in 2003, all the submissions were required to have some Memphis connection.
"We're only requiring that stories have a regional feel from authors who are submitting work from outside the region. Memphis writers [writers who live within a hundred mile radius of Memphis] can write about anything they want to write about."
"I'm also changing the way we do the judging," Crook says, suggesting that he may have overloaded his volunteer judges on the first go-round.
This doesn't mean the new edition will have fewer selections, only that a smaller number will be considered for competition. Crook will do the initial screening using a category sheet where up to 10 points can be earned in such areas as plot, delivery, visual impact, style/voice, and suspension of disbelief.
The size for entries in the fiction category has been expanded to 18,000 words. There is no minimum word count, but short pieces will only be considered for publication if they are very special.
"I think the shortest story I've ever written was about 1,000 words," Crook says, "but I've read some 500-word stories that were really good."
Each work of fiction and every three poems submitted require a reading fee of $10. A prize of $200 will be awarded to the first-place winners in the fiction and poetry categories, and all published authors will split the reading fees equally. In addition to the fiction and poetry competitions, there is also a $200 prize awarded for best cover art.
"I've applied to the IRS to attain charitable-institution status," Crook says. "Hopefully, that will happen by 2005, and we can get sponsorship and offer a lot more money to the winners. I think I would like to get rid of the reading fee entirely, because there are a lot of people who are completely against paying reading fees."
Crook says submissions for the 2004 anthology haven't started pouring in yet, but that's not unusual, as writers like to procrastinate. The deadline for 2004 entries is December 1st, and detailed information concerning entries may be found at http://tog.20m.com/anthology.htm. n -- Chris Davis
Filling a Niche
At an age when most people are thinking about retirement, Pius Eze is embarking on his latest venture: opening another bookstore, this time in the Apple Tree Shopping Center in Hickory Hill. Eze is co-owner of Memphis' only African-American bookstore, Afrobooks. In 1996, on the suggestion of a friend, Eze relocated to Memphis from Boston to begin business. What started as a pushcart sales venture grew into a permanent location in Southland Mall.
"When I first got to Memphis, there were two African-American bookstores: SideWalk University Gallery in Midtown and Kemet Campus Bookstore near the LeMoyne-Owen campus. Both were newer stores," Eze said. "I wondered why there weren't more stores in Memphis catering to the black community."
When SideWalk and Kemet closed, Eze adjusted his marketing plan to offer affordable books to customers with limited incomes. His Southland Mall store was opened as a discount bookstore, offering titles by African-American authors about African-American issues.
"We noticed that in a place like Memphis, where there was not a long heritage of a black middle class, there wasn't as much emphasis on reading and buying books," Eze said. "In a place like Chicago, parents bring their children to a bookstore and tell them to pick out a book. Here, maybe a mother is thinking more about paying bills. She tells the child to put the book back."
Although Eze's titles were selling for as little as $6 each, it wasn't enough to provide a steady cash flow.
"We tried everything," he said. "We had a children's hour where we would hire a professional storyteller to come in on Saturday mornings. But we'd only get one or two children," he said. Fortunately, a monthly adult book club has been successful, meeting each third Sunday at the store.
Eze also has turned to outside sales for additional revenue, traveling to book fairs and conventions to advertise his store and sell nonfiction titles. For instance, he will operate a booth during this week's Southern Festival of Books.
Now that Afrobooks has found its niche, Eze is focusing on the interests of his client base, composed 90 percent of black women. Most of the books in the Hickory Hill location, opening November 1st, will be new releases by authors such as E. Lynn Harris.
"What we've noticed is that women go more for fiction and romance," he said. "I don't know why more black women read than black men. All we can say is that people need to read more." n -- Janel Davis
Big Star: The Story of Rock's Forgotten Band
By Rob Jovanovic
Fourth Estate, 352 pp., £12.99 (paper)
It had to happen. Someone sometime was going to write a book about this city's cult band Big Star. That sometime is now, and that someone is British music writer Rob Jovanovic, whose Big Star is set to be published in England in November. (It will be available in the U.S. in 2005 by an as yet unnamed publisher.)
The Velvet Underground may hold a more rightful claim to the top of the cult-band heap, but Big Star rates higher in the category of mystery. Simply put, not much is known about founder Chris Bell, Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummell outside of insider circles.
To research his book, Jovanovic spoke to just about everyone and anyone even tangentially related to Big Star in and outside of Memphis (including yours truly). The ever-reclusive Alex Chilton, main focal point of the band in myth and reality, declined to talk. Not a big shocker, given Chilton's personal experience with a cult-figure status he never expected or wanted. But regardless, the book will give readers insight into how something as unexpectedly good as Big Star could have come out of the cultural vacuum that was Memphis rock in the early 1970s.
Jovanovic recently did an online Q&A for the Flyer on his upcoming Big Star:
What attracted you to Big Star as a subject?
I knew a bit of the Big Star story, but it had become so shrouded in myth that I wanted to know what really happened. And, of course, I absolutely love the music.
I've been lucky. So far, I've been able to write about my favorite bands/artists: Beck, REM, Pavement, Nirvana, Velvet Underground.
The book on Big Star was difficult because, despite their critical success, they're still relatively obscure. I have a pile of rejection letters to remind me how publishers felt about them. Each time I finished a book and came around to suggesting a follow-up to the publishers, I started with Big Star and always got the same reply: "Good idea, but it's not quite right for our list at the moment."
So again and again a book on Big Star was pushed to one side. And all the time I was worried that one day I'd walk into a bookstore and see the Big Star story written by someone else. But I kept going and was encouraged by the introduction to Patrick Humphrey's excellent Nick Drake biography in 1997, where he talked about the difficulty of getting a publisher: "They're like policemen," he explained, "there's never one there when you need one."
Were there any Big Star myths busted while you were doing your research?
Plenty of new myths were found, and some, like the days leading up to Chris Bell's death, were exposed. I managed to get the official police report and dispel much of what had been written.
What were your impressions of Memphis when you were here a couple of years back?
I was a little surprised. I thought it would be bigger. And like most American towns/cities, it didn't have a center like we're used to in England. (Though I did see a lot of regeneration going on downtown.) Overall, I enjoyed my time there, just sad that I haven't been able to get back. Everyone was friendly. The food was great.
Are you still a Big Star fan?
That's a good question, because usually after finishing a book on a band, it takes a long time before I can even listen to them again. In this case though the answer is yes. The music is just so strong that I can't fail to still be excited. Can't wait for their new album [done at Ardent Studio this past June].
Is there anything you'd like for Memphians to know about Big Star and your book before it's published?
Locals should appreciate just how good the band was/is and how the band is perceived in the rest of the world. When I was in Memphis, most people outside of my interviewees had no idea who Big Star was. The band gets as much coverage in the U.K. as any Memphis band and probably more than any Memphis artist, period. Outside of Elvis. n -- Ross Johnson
The Last Pentacle of the Sun: Writings in Support of the
West Memphis Three
Edited by M.W. Anderson and Brett Alexander Savory
Arsenal Pulp Press, 202 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Damien Echols was an avid reader of dark fiction. Books by Anne Rice, Stephen King, and Dean Koontz were among the items seized from his home and used as evidence in the 1993 trial that resulted in his conviction for the ritualistic murder of three West Memphis boys. Echols' supporters believe he and friends Jason Baldwin and Jessie Miskelley Jr. were wrongfully convicted based on prejudices in their small Arkansas town. Since the teenagers wore black, listened to Metallica, and read horror novels, they were painted as freaks, leaving them as prime suspects in a Satanic murder by moonlight.
Were the three the victims of a witch hunt? That's what the editors and contributors to Last Pentacle of the Sun: Writings in Support of the West Memphis Three believe. When Brett Alexander Savory and M.W. Anderson, both writers of dark fiction, learned about the West Memphis Three, they decided to produce a collection of short stories, essays, and artwork by well-known authors and celebrities inspired by the case. All proceeds from the book, which includes contributions from James Hetfield, Mike Olivieri, Clive Barker, Margaret Cho, Poppy Z. Brite, and Bentley Little, go to the Damien Echols Defense Fund.
The Flyer recently spoke to editors M.W. Anderson and Brett Alexander Savory.
So, what inspired you guys to put out a book to raise money for the West Memphis Three?
Anderson: To our knowledge, no one involved in writing horror or dark fantasy fiction, which was a contributing factor in the "occult" case against the West Memphis Three, has ever spoken out against this miscarriage of justice, much less shown their support. Brett and I discussed this via e-mail and decided to try our hands at it.
How did you collect the material?
Savory: Mike and I drew up separate lists of writers whom we admired and thought would be good for the book. We started at the top with the bigger names and went down from there. Nearly everyone we contacted had heard of the case and was totally behind the idea.
One contributor, Margaret Cho, actually contacted us about the project. When her e-mail came into my mailbox, I nearly deleted it thinking it was spam. Then, while my finger was hovering over the mouse, ready to delete, something clicked in my mind from a few years back when I'd seen her stand-up comedy on TV.
How did you convince these authors to donate their material free-of-charge?
Savory: We just asked. Only one writer, Brian Hopkins, declined because he thought the guys were actually guilty. Upon hearing this, Mike sent Brian a copy of Mara Leveritt's investigation of the case, The Devil's Knot. Brian read it and changed his mind. He'd contribute something after all. Unfortunately, the deadline crept up on him, and he didn't have time to write something for us.
How did you become interested in this case?
Anderson: I read The Devil's Knot after viewing the documentary Paradise Lost II, and I found that I was totally convinced that these guys were innocent. I'm a Southerner and was into the same things that Damien was into as a teenager, so I could identify with him.
Savory: Henry Rollins kept talking about the case in his e-mail newsletter. I finally clicked on one of the links provided and started reading about it.
Have you visited or spoken with any of the West Memphis Three?
Savory: I have not, and neither has Mike. But I would certainly like to one day. Hopefully, though, I won't have to visit them in prison.
Do they know about your book?
Savory: I've been in communication with Lorri Davis, Damien's wife, and she's very excited about it. She's told Damien, and she said he's looking very forward to reading it. Some of his favorite authors have stories in the book. I don't know if anyone's told Jason and Jessie about it, though I'm hoping we can get all three of them copies as soon as it's released. n -- Bianca Phillips
The official publication date of The Last Pentacle of the Sun is October 15th.
Songwriter Showcase with a Literary Twist
Marshall Chapman might be a rocker, but she's a writer too. Most recently, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter published her mid-life memoir, Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller. Before that, she contributed material to the Lee Smith/Jill McCorkle play Good Ol' Girls, which Chapman refers to as "a feminist literary country music review." And just recently, she appeared in a one-woman show called The Triumph of Rock and Roll Over Good Breeding, staged at the Bitter End in New York City.
Whether dropping acid with songwriter/producer Jack Clement (and watching porno movies backward), hanging out with Jerry Lee Lewis (who once told her to take it easy), or jet-setting with Jimmy Buffet (he later covered her song "The Perfect Partner") -- all of which Chapman details in Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller -- this gal has clearly lived the life she sings about, yet her storytelling comes across as anything but braggadocio.
"I've always been a reader," Chapman says via phone from Nashville. "My mother read to us growing up -- stories like Heidi and The Yearling. When I was a girl, I liked The Black Stallion series by Walter Farley. Then, in my early 20s, I fell in love with all those macho writers like Hemingway and Jim Harrison. When I became more aware of feminism -- the radical notion that women were people too, which those guys are clueless about -- their writing started getting on my nerves.
"My favorite book of all time is To Kill a Mockingbird, which made me aware of social injustices," she adds.
Chapman's enthusiasm for writing makes her the perfect hostess for Saturday's "Songwriter Showcase with a Literary Twist," held in conjunction with this week's Southern Festival of Books. The showcase is an extension of Chapman's annual "Literary In-the-Round" event, typically held at Nashville's Bluebird Café.
In Nashville, Chapman's party has attracted songwriters like Matraca Berg, Rodney Crowell, and Billy Joe Shaver as well as novelists Clyde Edgerton, Larry Brown, and Lee Smith. "The Southern Festival of Books is my favorite weekend of the year," she says, "and it's always been magic. As a songwriter, it's really something to look into the audience and see all these writers I love."
When she learned that the festival relocated to Memphis this year, Chapman recruited Memphians Keith and Jerene Sykes as organizers and secured promises from McCorkle and Edgerton to perform.
"Keith and I have a mutual friend named Buzz Cason, who's done it all, from singing with Elvis, producing Jimmy Buffet's first record, to writing the hit song 'Everlasting Love.' He has a book out now called Living the Rock'n'Roll Dream, so we'll get him up to sing," Chapman says. "I hope the night takes on a Memphis flavor." n
-- Andria Lisle
"Songwriter Showcase with a Literary Twist": Saturday, October 9th, 8:30 p.m., 36 East G.E. Patterson.
Contest Winners Announced
A panel of judges recently selected the winners of the annual Memphis Magazine Fiction Contest. Taking the grand prize is Mare Carmody Borgelt, who was awarded $1,000 and will have her story published in the magazine's February 2005 issue. Honorable-mention winners earning $500 each are John Forbes and Ashley Harper. All winners live in Memphis.
Borgelt, who won an honorable mention in the same contest two years ago, is a graduate of Old Dominion University. Her story "Nansemond" centers around a hurricane in coastal Virginia that brings back memories of a girlhood tragedy. Borgelt says receiving the award is "fabulous" and adds with a laugh, "My English degree finally amounted to something."
Forbes, who won for "The Switchman," recently earned an M.A. from the University of Memphis and is working to have a short-story collection published. Harper, who won for "Hector Ramirez Casarubios," recently returned to Memphis after teaching in Peru; her works have appeared in literary magazines. All winners will read from their stories at the Southern Festival of Books on Sunday, October 10th, 2 p.m., on the Poetry and Drama Stage.
The fiction contest, now in its 15th year, is co-sponsored by Burke's Book Store, Davis-Kidd Booksellers, and That Bookstore in Blytheville. Judges are John Bensko, Leonard Gill, Cary Holladay, Alice Long, and Marilyn Sadler. The contest is open to writers living within 150 miles of Memphis. Annual deadline for entries is August 1st. For more information, go to www.memphismagazine.com and click on Fiction Contest. n