This may be the first week of July, but the last weekend of September is on the minds of the folks at Literacy Mid-South. That's because planning is very much in the works (and has been for months now) for the organization's first-ever, citywide, and mostly free Mid-South Book Festival September 25th-28th. Dozens of authors, panelists, speakers, and workshop leaders — the majority of them Memphians or Mid-Southerners — are set to appear. Multiple venues have agreed to serve as event sites, and sponsors are in place. So too festival apps, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account.
For a list of participating writers, events, venues, and updates, go to midsouthbookfest.org. Among the invited writers are Memphis Flyer Associate Editor (and cookbook author) Bianca Phillips and Flyer photographer Justin Fox Burks (cookbook co-author along with his wife, Amy Lawrence). Other Memphians slated to be on hand: Steve Bradshaw, Jennifer Chandler, Heather Dobbins, Robert Gordon, Aram Goudsouzian, Mark Greaney, Lisa Hickman, Corey Mesler, Lisa Patton, Courtney Miller Santo, and Barry Wolverton. But there are out-of-towners scheduled to appear too, among them: Julia Reed, Scott Heim, and Michael Lowenthal.
Dean, Heather Nordtvedt (Literacy Mid-South's community relations manager), and the organization's staff have been working hard since the idea for a book festival was raised at a board meeting last summer.
"Nobody thought it was going to happen anytime soon," Dean admitted. "The festival was simply in our five-year plan — a signature event, not just a fund-raiser. Then our fall reading campaign fell through for this year, so we thought we'd try out the book festival idea. It was going to be a small thing. We thought: Let's try it and see how it goes. If it doesn't work, we'll get rid of it."
And indeed, the festival began small: a one-day event at the Memphis Botanic Garden. It's now expanded to four days — with programs for children and young adults and live-music components — and the venues so far include, in addition to the Botanic Garden, the Booksellers at Laurelwood, Burke's Book Store, and the Memphis Gay & Lesbian Community Center.
What prompted the expansion? Immediate and enthusiastic local author interest, for one thing. Public response, for another. According to Dean, when the festival launched its Facebook page, the site received 250 "likes" the first day.
Early in the planning stages, Literacy Mid-South was thinking maybe a couple hundred people would show up for the festival. The organization is now expecting thousands. Which all goes to show, Dean is convinced, that Memphians have been looking for such a festival in their own town. Nashville has its Southern Festival of Books. Little Rock has its Arkansas Literary Festival.
It was at the festival in Little Rock this past April that Dean talked to author Mary Roach, who's no stranger to the book-festival circuit. Dean told Roach of Literacy Mid-South's plans. She immediately convinced him that the Mid-South Book Festival needed to expand beyond a single day and single venue — and the better to meet one of the festival's goals: funding local literacy programs. Proceeds from Literacy Mid-South's onsite Bookworm store, concessions, and three creative-writing workshops during the festival will go to supporting those programs.
"I'm a big proponent of growing things — starting small, then growing," Dean said of the festival.
But growing this fast? Dean has just hired someone to manage the festival for the next couple of years. And there's been talk about doing some publishing at Literacy Mid-South: a collection of writings by festival authors about Memphis.
"This all shows a need that we're filling, even among people who don't necessarily know what a book festival is," Dean said of the Mid-South Book Festival. "And what's crazy: We have all these best-selling authors in Memphis, and I didn't even know they live here! Putting the festival together has been educational for me too."
But as planning the festival reaches its final stages, Dean had this to add: "Everything's nailed down. Now it just has to happen."