Nashville is best known for its super-short stories—the ones that last around three-and-a-half minutes and are accompanied by an acoustic guitar. But we—and I can only say “we” because I have recently made peace with having lived here all my life, and am inching toward a sense of belonging I’ve never felt before—are becoming a classy literary hub too.
Sure, there were the Fugitive Poets—John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, others—who banded together at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s, but that era—especially since formal writing programs had not yet taken off—did not cement our literary status.
I used to live behind the Fugitive Poet House in my early twenties. I ran past it nearly every day, its historical marker reminding me I only had one more block to go before sinking into my couch. What I didn’t know then was that on my route I had also been running past Ann Patchett’s house. Yes—the Ann Patchett. The one who studied at Iowa and spent time at Yaddo and Provincetown; the one whose first publication was in The Paris Review, whose novel Bel Canto rose above stiff competition to win the Orange Prize in 2002.
Now she’s the Ann Patchett who co-owns Parnassus Books, Nashville’s premier independent bookseller. It opened last autumn, and already the store has created near-constant buzz, thanks to Patchett’s energizing media appearances—no small thing for such a private person. But her messages were important, and had to get out.
She mentioned the store when touting the importance of independent booksellers on The Colbert Report and when she lamented the 2012 Pulitzer fiction debacle in a New York Times piece and on PBS NewsHour. This past weekend, the store hosted readings with Colin Powell and John Carter Cash, which should give you an idea of the kind of pull the store has to bring high-profile authors to our community. Kevin Wilson—whom Patchett introduced as her “best friend” and “the reason for opening this store”—drove here from Sewanee to read a few weeks ago, and my husband and I got a chance to speak with him in person after e-knowing him for years. The store was packed. I didn’t know that Nashville had so many literary fiction readers—bright, engaged people who wanted to spend a weekday evening hearing a reading, shaking hands with a local author whose book—The Family Fang—was snatched up by Nicole Kidman for her next movie project.
Within months, the location of the store has become more than the place that’s “right around the corner from where Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban stop for coffee”: it’s “Ann Patchett’s bookstore.” Patchett has become a veritable celebrity herself, where on a few auspicious days, you might catch her assisting customers with their purchases. My husband and I are so jarred when we see her that we can’t seem to find the courage to introduce ourselves. I did yoga beside her once, on New Year’s Day a couple years ago, and when I found out who she was, I became a bumbling idiot. She has us tongue-tied.
In our household, she’s a celebrity for more reasons than her writing credentials and media rounds. She is a champion of local authors, and she fulfilled my husband’s dream of seeing his book on a bookseller’s table. A table. In a real-life bookstore. Do you have any idea how much money the book’s publisher (our resident hero Dan Cafaro, by the way) would have had to pay to get The Snow Whale on a table at Borders or Barnes & Noble? Too much. It’s prime real estate, and bookstores know it.
Patchett knows it too, but she doesn’t exploit it. There is a table dedicated to local authors, and she showcases them there, not because anyone paid her big bucks, but because that’s where they belong. And every time I look, I’m amazed at the talent living here in Tennessee. They were hidden, I suppose, out of my awareness, and this remarkable brick-and-mortar store exposes them in a way that Amazon can’t.
Independent bookstores are rare and wonderful things, and I feel so fortunate to have one here, in the city I’ve wanted to flee for two decades but now can’t imagine leaving. And when independent bookstores and independent presses get together? It’s magical, because of how blindingly apparent it becomes that one, or two, or three people can really, truly make an impact on a community. So many readers want to know where to find the good stuff, and the good stuff is, in my experience, rarely on the table in front of the door at Borders.
Which brings me to how special this week is here at Atticus Review, which is an under-the-radar kind of outfit, a youngster in the online literary journal community. We’re turning one on Thursday, May 17th. (We will gladly accept balloons and cake. We like balloons and cake.) Our goal was to expose writers who were “six degrees left of literature,” whatever that means—I don’t think that even we know, but we know it when we see it—and I’m amazed that we were given the opportunity to do it. You gave us the opportunity to do it, because without readers, we would not have the motivation to sift through submissions until 2 a.m. and then rise and shine in a few hours for our day jobs. And the writers! The writers! It still amazes me that we receive a constant deluge of submissions, that great writers want to be a part of what we’re doing here. And when I can accept a submission from a writer who’s never had a publication, who is taking a big leap of faith just pressing the “submit” button, I am elated, because that was me. Hell, it still is me. I feel like I’m able to give back something that has been given to me, as corny as that sounds. And for so many of you to read my drivel each week? Wow: that makes me sky-high. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
“Song for the Deaf” chronicles the secret rivalry of an unexceptional small town boy toward a fellow classmate, a young opera prodigy, the piece reminiscent in tone and subject matter to Barry Hannah’s “Testimony of Pilot.” And yes, there’s a deaf girl that brings the two young men together. John Henry Fleming writes these fragile characters so warmly, so astutely, that I want to pay him to rewrite my childhood.
Brian Ellis builds toward celebratory rapture in “Certain Celebration,” a flash that chronicles a moment that should be great, should be fun, but is slightly off. The skirmish between the human propensity toward merriment and the tug of a gaping hole in the subject’s life creates tension worth exploration. But watch out: you will be humming Kool and the Gang all day.
This week’s poem is a conversation—a conversation about a conversation—with one side outweighing the other. “Carpe diem” is the theme of Vanessa Blakeslee’s “The Choice,” only more urgent, more desperate, as days to seize dwindle and shrink.
Photo Source: The Willful Caboose