Nashville is well known for its writers, yet most folks would think of songwriters before any other type of writing craft when they think of Nashville and “its writers.” Yet Nashville is home to an admirable stable of literary wordsmiths. From children’s literature to adult fiction to all points in between, Nashville’s roster of accomplished authors is quite impressive.
It is true that Nashville has long been a hotspot of publishing companies. Indeed, the publishing industry is one of Nashville’s “business trinity,” having been an important presence in Nashville’s business community for many, many decades and beyond. Such companies as Thomas Nelson, Abingdon Press, Lifeway Christian Resources, and Rutledge Hill Press have all played a role in establishing and maintaining Nashville’s long-standing reputation for publishing excellence.
Not only is Nashville known for its publishing excellence, but our city is becoming known for its literary offerings as well. A sign of a well-established city is its public library system and its public education, and if you think of Nashville in those regards, we are well established indeed. Nashville’s homage to the written word is on display throughout the year, but it is perhaps nowhere more evident than during the Humanities Tennessee annual Southern Festival of Books. Having just completed its 25th year, the Southern Festival of Books is one of the largest gatherings in the country and is likely as much a favorite of its celebrated guest authors as it is of its loyal fan base of readers. It has been held on the same October weekend for 25 years, and it is, as they describe themselves, “…one of the first book festivals of its kind, a true celebration of the written word, and has inspired hundreds of similar book festivals throughout the nation and beyond.” Local children’s literature author Kristen O’Donnell Tubb, author of the books Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different, Selling Hope and most recently The 13th Sign, veritably gushed when she spoke of the proud history of the Festival. “The Southern Festival of Books turns 25 this year, and Humanities Tennessee continues to lure in the biggest names in books for this event. There are tables upon tables of books and three full days of author presentation and signings. And it’s FREE. It is, I imagine, what heaven is like.”
It is indeed heavenly to walk into Legislative Plaza in October. The smell of books is in the air. During the rest of the year, local readers must content themselves with a smaller but equally as satisfying trickle of literary events. “In that same vein, Salon@615 and the Nashville Public Library continuously offer access to some of the world’s great storytellers,” states Tubb. This groundswell of support for notable authors and the written word is a joint endeavor between a wide variety of local literary giants. Salon@615 describes itself as an “ongoing partnership between Nashville Public Library, Nashville Public Library Foundation, Parnassus Books and Humanities Tennessee designed to nurture and celebrate the literary life of Nashville by presenting bestselling authors for talks and book signings. Since its inception in early 2011, Salon@615 has become a regular and vital author series on Nashville’s cultural calendar.” Their roster of authors for 2013 is just as impressive, including such greats as Evan Thomas, Becca Stevens, Anne Lamott, Elizabeth Strout, Cheryl Strayed, Isabel Allende and Augusten Burroughs. Their fall roster does not disappoint, either, bringing such august authors as Marisha Pessl, Donna Tartt, Garrison Keillor, Pat Conroy, Elizabeth Gilbert, Ann Patchett, Wally Lamb, Amy Tan and Nikki Giovanni to Nashville.
A careful reader may have caught the name “Parnassus Books” in the list of supporters of the Salon@615 series. This literary haven of a bookstore, co-owned by publishing industry veteran Karen Hayes and celebrated local author Ann Patchett, has become a remarkable success story in its relatively young history. Begun as a way to provide our city with an independent source of books, Parnassus has become celebrated by such industry giants as The New York Times and BBC News. Undoubtedly the David to the industry’s Goliath, small independent bookstores like Parnassus Books are nonetheless making a stand in offering their customers an intimate, learned and resourceful environment for booklovers. Not quite 2 years old, Parnassus Books has already become a venerable locale. You’d never guess that they opened their doors a mere two years ago.
This support for local authors and authors nationwide that Parnassus Books is providing is due in no small part to the efforts of its owners. Ann Patchett’s novels are equally as celebrated as her bookstore, if not more so. Indeed, Patchett was named as one of Time’s list of the “Most Influential People in the World” in 2012. The author of such impressive tomes as Bel Canto, The Patron Saint of Liars, The Magician’s Assistant and State of Wonder, Patchett has certainly weighed in on the importance of supporting the written word. “Ann Patchett, whose beautiful prose feels like one long exhale, rather than a series of scenes…is part owner of Parnassus Books, the wonderful independent bookstore in Green Hills. Parnassus and its employees are so passionate about local talent, and their support of authors and their stories helps keep Nashville in the literary spotlight,” states Tubb.
Moving on from fiction to children’s literature, Kristin Tubb is one of Nashville’s lauded authors. Also a veteran of the publishing industry, Tubb’s novels for children and young adults include her most recent work, The 13th Sign. “The 13th Sign was the first book I sold based on a partial manuscript. It is certainly a whole new level of intensity when the money is in the bank before the story is written!” Speaking of her first novel Autumn Winifred Oliver Does Things Different, published by Delacorte/Random House/Yearling in 2008, Tubb said, “Every book, I’ve found, comes to life differently. Some stories beg to be put on paper as quickly as possible, others stew in the back of your mind for years before finally sneaking onto the page word by word…it was the first time I felt like I truly knew the character, like she was more than someone I’d just made up. That’s a great feeling as a writer, because it’s more likely to be a character that someone else feels they know, too.”
Tubb is not alone in writers’ circles when she emphasizes the importance of ensuring that her readers feel connected to the story and to the characters within. One such local author, however, brings her readers into an even more intimate and personal level. Christian author Sarah Young, whose book Jesus Calling has topped the charts since its release in 2004, is indeed a Nashvillian. In a recent and exceedingly rare story on Young in Christianity Today, it appears that her devotional book has become quite the bestseller. “As of this summer, Jesus Calling had sold 9 million copies in 26 languages, and Publishers Weekly reported that it remained the No. 5 bestseller in the first half of 2013 – for all books, not just Christian ones: It outsold Fifty Shades of Grey. But even as the book continues to top bestseller lists (and prompts spinoffs, including a devotional Bible, a storybook, and women’s, teen’s, and children’s editions), its author, Sarah Young, remains virtually unknown. Most people seem unaware of who Young is, even if they have read Jesus Calling.”
This article by Melissa Steffan highlights both the impact of Young’s book and the relative anonymity of Young herself. As a Nashvillian who recently returned to the States after her most recent missionary endeavor to Perth, Australia, Young’s heart for ministry has not diminished. Working away on additional books to inspire readers, Young is now home in Nashville and well supported by her followers, her friends and her faith.
Nashville’s literary offerings are certainly broad – from modern adult fiction to children’s literature, to non-fiction and academic titles. But as surprised as our readers may have been to discover that author Sarah Young hails from Nashville is the fact that one of the most active and most outspoken supporters of First Amendment rights is also a native Nashvillian. Venerable author, newspaperman and political veteran John Seigenthaler is perhaps best known for his work with The Tennessean and USA Today as well as the Freedom Forum and his prior work in the Civil Rights Movement with then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Indeed, Seigenthaler was so involved with the Civil Rights Movement as Kennedy’s representative to the Freedom Riders that he became a victim of violence and was attacked and left unconscious by an angry mob when he had come to the rescue of two women who were part of the Freedom Riders.
This deep involvement with justice and fairness has served Seigenthaler well through the years, and he has turned that same devotion to the written word in his long-running PBS show “A Word on Words,” on the air for decades and supporting local authors with his one-on-one style of interviews. An author himself, Seigenthaler has penned a number of books, including his 2004 historical look at Tennessee’s native son and America’s 11th President, James K. Polk.
If only there was room to detail each and every author in this woefully small spread. Adam Ross, Jon Meacham, Alice Randall, Robert Hicks, Ruta Sepetys. The list goes on and on. Indeed, Nashville’s literary landscape is vast. Tubb gives great praise to our literary community. “The South has a long tradition of storytelling, and there’s nothing quite like listening to a good story told with humor and sadness and energy. That seems to be a part of what it means to be ‘Southern’: the ability to tell the heartiest tale…Nashville carries on this storytelling tradition, most famously in music. I moved to Nashville right out of college, and the music scene here was so unique and vast, I couldn’t believe it. Live music at a sushi place! It’s the best. But again, for me, the largest benefit of being a writer in Nashville is getting to know (and grow with!) other writers here. They challenge me to be my best. Together we celebrate the ups and cheer one another through the downs. Other writers aren’t competitors. They are dear, dear friends.”
This story is available thanks to the sponsorship of Bradford’s Interiors