The week couldn’t have started out better than it did. Bill Cody, the erudite and personable host of WSM – Nashville’s and America’s flagship country music station – kindly invited me on his morning show. We talked about out mutual life-long love of country music, Hank Williams Senior, Kris Kristofferson, books, Vermont and Tennessee – for me, the thrill of a lifetime. Thank you, Bill!
Down in Atlanta, Marlene Zeller, owner of Tall Tales Books and a long-time supporter of my books, told me that she originally planned to open a dessert pastry shop but wasn’t really that good a baker. I’m glad that Marlene opted for an indie bookstore instead. Tall Tales is one of the best in the country, likewise Capitol Book and News in Montgomery, where I had a wonderful late-afternoon visit with owners Tom and Cheryl Upchurch and customers about the state of the book in general. With passionate, knowledgeable booksellers like Cheryl and Tom, I’m hopeful for the future of “the book.”
In between Atlanta and Montgomery, I stopped at the Andersonville National Park in Georgia. Two quick stories: In august of 1864, with 100 men a day dying of thirst, fever, and bacterial infection from impure water, a powerful spring came gushing out of the ground during a lightning storm. “Providence Spring” saved perhaps thousands of lives. In the cemetery nearby, apart from the other 12,000 or so graves, lie six miscreants known as the “Raiders.” The Raiders preyed on “fresh fish,” newcomers to Andersonville, robbing them and sometimes murdering them for their belongings. They were duly tried, found guilty, and hanged by their fellow prisoners, with the full blessing of the prison commandant. (The Union prison camp at Elmira was no better, by the way. In a little more than a year, nearly 3,000 Confederate soldiers died there of neglect, starvation, disease, and worse.)
It occurred to me, looking at Providence Spring and the graves of the Raiders, that one reason the American South has produced, and continues to produce, so many wonderful writers, is that it is a gold mine of wonderful stories. Southern writers, from Twain, Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor to Steve Yarbrough, William Gay, Tom Franklin, Howard Bahr, Lee Smith, Ron Rash, Tim Gautreaux – the list goes on and on and on – have never cut themselves off from the timeless literary themes of history, family, and nature. Beyond the British Isles, I know of no other region in the world that had bestowed more first-rate literature upon us than our southern states.
So. Did Tom Lowenberg, bookman par excellence and owner of New Orleans’ great Octavia Books, still sell my all-time favorite American comic novel, A Confereracy of Dunces, in good quantities? Absolutely, and All the King’s Men as well.
Up in Jackson, Lemuria Books has championed southern literature (and literature in general) for decades, and so has Square Books, in Oxford, MS. Jamie Korenegay, at Turnrow Books in Greenwood, MS, knows the work of every southern writer since Twain, inside out. As for Mary Gay Shipley, owner of That Bookstore in Blytheville, AR, who describes herself as “a poster child for bookstores in places where there oughtn’t to be bookstores,” well, her knowledge of literature and commitment to her customers and community are astonishing. Mary Gay’s bookstore, by the way, used to be a speakeasy. A customer told her that his father was shot to death there, sitting in a shoeshine chair, by a Prohibition-era mobster down from Capone’s Chicago.
For me, part of the fun of this Great American Book Tour – the title of my next book, incidentally, a memoir of my book tour, coming out in a year, is getting out of Vermont and New England, my literary “comfort zone,” and trying my luck with events, readings, and signings in the rest of America. Like baseball, touring for a book can be a pretty humbling enterprise, and you don’t have to take my word for it. Ask my colleagues Chris Bohjalian, Richard Russo, Annie Proulx. They’ll tell you the same thing.
But if touring writers are willing to get off the beaten track, the usual 8-city circuit, they’ll find world-class bookstores in the unlikeliest places, like Page and Palette in Fairhope, Alabama, where I signed on the most beautiful coffee table I’ve ever seen, a six-foot-long slab of yellow, long-leaf pine, one of the most beautiful trees – and woods – on earth. And Lorelei Books – look for the sign of the Siren reading a book – in Vicksburg. And Turning Pages in Natchez, where you’ll meet Sugar, the dancing Westy Terrier.
Not to mention libraries, in tiny hamlets and big cities, which, along with indie bookstores, are keeping “the book” as we know it alive.
“Alabama State Library Services” the small sign on the outskirts of Montgomery said. I had just time to swing by or to re-visit the Hank Williams Senior Museum downtown. Having stopped to see the powder-blue Cadillac convertible Hank died in on New Year’s, 1953, on my last visit, I opted for the State Library Services, just out of curiosity. There, it was my good fortune to meet Dr. Dana Barlow, director of Acquisitions and of Services for the Blind and Handicapped. She took me on a guided tour of the cavernous repository of Braille and audio books for the blind – 700,000 titles in all, including two of my all-time favorites, Lonesome Dove and Cold Mountain. Dana and her staff send out hundreds of titles a day. Circulation in many regular libraries nationwide is, sadly, down, but not so for blind and handicapped readers. I asked if I could see the Braille edition of Alabama author Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Dana took me right to it. In Braille, Lee’s classic comes in two huge volumes as large as an unabridged dictionary, though the entire Bible fits into an audio cassette no larger than a cell phone.
“We hope one day that everything available in print will also be available in electronic format for the blind,” Dana told me.
Oh, and that she just got married last Friday. Congratulations, Dana. Keep up the good work!