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Telling Tales South of the 'Mason-Diction' Line : Books: Southerners seem to have a deep-seated need to express themselves.

November 23, 1989

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Three qualities unite Southerners: a passion for the land, an almost Calvinist assumption of a preordained universe, and an absolute reverence for the word.

In the beginning, of course, was the word, which explains why, on a weekend that blazed up like the summers of childhood, 35,000 Southerners spent three days indoors, intent on and finally intoxicated by the rhythmic words of more than 120 authors at the inaugural Southern Festival of Books.

"This has been a book town since the late 1700s, when the first publishers set up shop," organizer and author John Egerton told the crowd. "The first bookstore opened in 1911. This was the Athens of the West before there was a South.

"And it was because of talk--porch talk, pillar talk, hearth talk, table talk. It was the singing in church; the shouting in the fields; the talking in the pulpit, in the classroom, in the courtroom. As a friend of mine used to say, 'It's all just talk, darlin', just good ol' Southern talk.' We may have the highest illiteracy rate in the nation, but we sure know how to talk."

And talk they did. Novelists, short-story writers, songwriters, historians, critics, chefs, academicians, illustrators, children's authors, a former president and a former governor, blacks, whites, "new" writers and old, talked about what makes writing Southern, what drives so many Southerners to write, and even about how to publish, market and promote them.

In between, they engaged in that other quintessentially Southern passion: the social hour.

"What characterizes Southern writers?" repeated humorist Roy Blount Jr. "You mean besides incipient alcoholism?" A pause. "I'll have to think on it."

Why do so many Southerners write? Elizabeth Spencer ("Light in the Piazza") says it goes back to a culture of storytelling. Northerners "don't have time for telling stories. And you know, we were so poor for so long, we had to have something to amuse ourselves."

Charleston, S.C., novelist Josephine Humphreys ("Rich in Love") believes storytelling "is a natural urge in humans, if not a need and hunger. I find I really need to (write) to find significance in the events of my life. Even when I was little, I used to wake up in the night afraid of dying because it was the end of the possibility of seeing the meaning in things."

Similarly, Lee Smith said of the character in her epistolary novel, "Fair and Tender Ladies," that "for Ivy, it's the writing of the letters that signifies--it's what they mean to her, not to whoever gets them, that helps her make sense of her life."

Oral Tradition

Children's author Patricia McKissack told a packed meeting room of children, their parents and their grandparents that the Southern oral tradition was unique; that she was telling stories her mother had been told by her mother, and that McKissack hoped would be told by her own children to theirs--stories not just of family traditions, but even ghost stories and inspirational fables.

They are indeed family stories, agreed Mark Childress ("A World Made of Fire"), "but you can't reveal your sources. I have a great-aunt who just won't be able to read my next book. We'll have to keep it out of her hands. She'll have a stroke."

Robert Massie, author of "Nicholas and Alexandra" and "Peter the Great," says it is true that Southerners are obsessed with the past. "Southern writing, both fiction and nonfiction, struggles to take us back to our roots. It's in our history: We lost, and we still wonder why."

Among the more famous participants were Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, who packed the auditorium during their joint reading. Musical storytellers included Tom T. Hall, who headed a panel titled "Song of the South: Poetry, Fiction, Storytelling, Truth and Lies in Country Songwriting," and Margaritaville's No. 1 resident, Jimmy Buffett. Buffett's appearance at the Nashville Tennessean's Book and Author Dinner attracted a group of teen-age fans clutching copies of the children's book Buffet wrote with his daughter Samantha (Buffett also has a new collection of short stories out).

There were five Pulitzer Prize winners there, including Taylor Branch ("Parting the Waters"), along with winners of scores of other literary awards.

More than 60 Southern publishers and bookstore operators set up booths and signing areas in the broad plaza at the foot of the classical State Capitol.

Illustrator Michael Hague, whose haunting and romantic paintings of "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty" are framed on many industry executives' walls, signed autographs for more than four hours as fans--primarily adults--stood patiently in the near-90-degree heat.

There were religious publishers handing out "biblical literacy IQ tests" of the Old and New Testaments; dozens of university handouts pushing biographies of regional sports heroes, Confederate generals and even other authors; books of Southern recipes, and a cooking corner where such celebrities as Chef Tell showed off their skills.

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