>Happy 30th to Square Books & Granta: Oxford Conference for the Book

>Yesterday I drove down to Oxford for the final afternoon of the Oxford Conference for the Book . I was concerned that I might miss part of it as I headed out of Memphis on I-240 and came upon a traffic jam just before hitting I-55 South. As I inched forward, along with dozens of other motorists merging into a single lane, I finally saw the cause—this wreck. One car had landed on top of another! Two fire trucks, two ambulances and several police cars were on the scene, and several people were sitting in the grass beside the underpass. No one seemed to be hurt, unless I had already missed another ambulance transferring folks to the hospital. Fortunately the traffic jam only lasted ten minutes, and I was safely back on my way to Oxford. (okay, my inner blog critic is saying this is boring and has nothing to do with this post, that it would be more appropriate for Twitter, and maybe so, but it’s here now so if you’re bored with it, hopefully you just skipped down to the good stuff.)

Although there was an amazing group of speakers and panelists scheduled for the conference, I was only able to make it for Saturday afternoon’s events:

2:00 p.m. “Reviewing Books in Cyberspace”: J. Peder Zane, moderator; John Freeman, Haven Kimmel, Lydia Millet

3:00 p.m. Readings and Remarks: Lyn Roberts, moderator; Jack Pendarvis, John Pritchard, Steve Yarbrough

4:00 p.m. “News, Novels, and the Sport of Books”: Richard Howorth, moderator; Leonard Downie, John Freeman, and Terry McDonell

6:00 p.m. Marathon Book Signing and Party Celebrating Granta & Square Books: 30 Years of American Literature at Off Square Books

The 2 p.m. panel included John Freeman, former president of the National Book Critics Circle and new American editor of the British literary journal, Granta. (John’s first book, The Tyranny of E-mail, will be released by Simon & Schuster on October 13.) It was great to meet John and talk with him about the kind of writing he’s looking to publish in future issues of Granta.

But I was sad to find out when I got there that Haven Kimmel had to cancel at the last minute (as did Lydia Millet) for personal reasons. I’m a huge fan of Kimmel, having read both of her memoirs (more than once) and all of her novels. And I was also looking forward to meeting Lydia Millet. Since Millet couldn’t come, I read her interview on Bookslut when I got home, much to John Freeman’s probable chagrin. I say that because during the 2 pm panel on “Reviewing Books in Cyberspace,” Freeman expressed concerns about random bloggers reviewing books vs. legitimate literary critics’ reviews. He even mentioned Bookslut. Both Freeman and Peder Zane, book review editor and books columnist for the News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, and editor of The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, raised the question, “Who do we trust?” in this new age where anyone with a blog can review a book. While critics were once an elite group, in a time when there was an overarching critic dialogue going on, the new voices of critics are often boring, but many are taking a less elitist tact—speaking directly to readers.

(Ouch. I’m one of those random bloggers who likes to review books on my blog. I’ve even been asked to review a few books, by a small press in Tennessee, and I enjoy the occasional review and Q&A with authors, like this one with Haven Kimmel, and this one with John Floyd, whose works I want to promote. I know I only get about 200 hits a day, but hey, John, I try not to be boring.)

Panelist Lyn Roberts, manager of Square Books in Oxford, says that booksellers act as a filter, making personal recommendations based on the customer’s interests. She compared the relationship of booksellers and their customers to our democratic republic type government—we choose people in the know to represent us. That’s what knowledgeable booksellers can also do for readers. Her comments reminded me of an experience I had at another independent bookstore, Burke’s Books in Memphis, this past December. I went in to buy some books as Christmas gifts, but I was stumped on what to get for one of my sons. “Who are some of his favorite authors?” one of the store’s employees asked me. I mentioned a few and we discussed his tastes and interests, and she made a recommendation. That’s a helpful filter.

The 3 p.m. panel, “Readings and Remarks,” included readings by three authors with Mississippi connections. I especially enjoyed Steve Yarbrough’s reading, from Visible Spirits, which he wrote while serving as Grisham writer in residence in 1999-2000.

And I was also encouraged by John Pritchard (who lives in Memphis) who has wanted to write “a big beautiful book about the South” since he was 57. Now he’s 71 and published his first book at 68—I’m “only” 58, but sometimes I feel old as I continue working on the three or four books I’d like to publish. Here’s an interview Pritchard gave for Mississippi Public Broadcasting about his character, Junior Ray Loveblood, and his books, Junior Ray and Yazoo Blues (which isn’t about music.)

Jack Pendavris was entertaining, as always.

The 4 p.m. panel was chaired by Square Books owner, Richard Howorth. Panelists were Leonard Downie, who retired as executive editor at the Washington Post last year and has written a novel, The Rules of the Game; Terry McDonell, editor of the Sports Illustrated Group (he has also written for one of my favorite TV shows, “China Beach”), and John Freeman (from the 2 p.m. panel.) Each gave upbeat, optimistic takes on the industry, and Downie closed out the day with a reading from his new novel.

It was fun to meet Downie and his lovely wife later at the 30th Birthday Party celebration for Square Books and Granta. Mrs. Downie works with the Head Start program in the DC area, where they live.

Richard and Lyn hosted the party…

… complete with cake, champagne, appetizers and an open bar.

It was fun to visit with old friends, like Jere Hoar, who graciously hosted my delightful birthday coffee at his home on March 8.and Neil White, whom I met a year ago when he helped organize the Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford. (Neil has been generous with his time and talent, aiding me in putting together the book proposal for my memoir-in-progress.) Neil’s first book, The Outcasts, will launch in June—watch for an advanced review and schedule of his signing on my blog the first of June! (Yes, John, another amateur book review will be featured here.)

And to meet new folks, like Duvall, (I don’t know if I spelled her name correctly) a darling young Ole Miss grad student at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, who was a Tri-Delt at Rhodes College…. We discovered both connections (Memphis and Tri-Delt) while she was assisting with my purchase at the cash register, and of course we had to commemorate the bond with another Kodak moment.

Back in Memphis, I opened the New York Times this morning and with much joy read that fellow Jackson author, Kathryn Stockett’s, novel The Help, is #16 on the NYT Book Review today! It was reviewed by the Times on February 18. And I had the pleasure of meeting Kathryn and hearing her read, with actress Octavia Spencer, at Lemuria Books in Jackson last month. Kudos, Kathryn!

While downloading my photos for this post, I couldn’t help but share this one, unrelated to the book conference, but just a parting shot—it’s my mother bird who is nesting three feet from the front door of our house.

She built her nest on top of this column last week. I can’t wait to hear her babies chirping as I gently slip out the door to get the mail and the newspapers each day. (We use our back door to access our cars.) Sometimes she flies to the safety of the nearby tulep tree when we come out the door. But sometimes she just watches us and sits still, guarding her eggs. New life. Hope springs eternal, for mother birds in spring, and for this budding author and lover of beautiful writing. I’ve got a couple of exciting projects in the works, so stay tuned. And I have another essay being published online this week, so watch for the link soon. Oh, and if you happen to be a peacock lover, like me, check this out.

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