Rocking & Swapping Stories

This spring's North Carolina Festival of the Book drew 11,000 people eager to listen towriters,musicians, and other kindred spirits talk about ideas and creative processes.
Writer: 
August 1, 2006

Any connoisseur of post-1950s American popular music would welcome the rare opportunity to sit at the feet of Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn, listening to them perform their classic songs and tell stories about their songwriting experiences.

On a Saturday afternoon in late April, some 200 appreciative listeners were treated to that experience in the Griffith Film Theater at Duke's Bryan Center, where the two Southern soul-music legends sat onstage looking relaxed and pleased at the warm reception. Resembling a goateed Harry Dean Stanton in a gray sports jacket and red sneakers, Oldham was in easy reach of a compact electric piano. Penn, a jovial ringer for Stanton's fellow actor John Goodman, wore overalls and cradled an acoustic guitar. The two aren't nearly as well-known as their songs--"I'm Your Puppet," "Do Right Woman," "Sweet Inspiration," and others they wrote for 1960s soul singers like Aretha Franklin and Solomon Burke--but they're clearly at home before an audience.

Making conversation: Algonquin Books editor Shannon Ravenel, left, moderates discussion on Southern literature with, clockwise, writers Robert Olen Butler, Jill McCorkle, and Roy Blount Jr

Making conversation: Algonquin Books editor Shannon Ravenel, left, moderates discussion on Southern literature with, clockwise, writers Robert Olen Butler, Jill McCorkle, and Roy Blount Jr. Jon Gardiner

Their companion onstage was North Carolina novelist Michael Parker--wiry, dark-haired, and a generation younger. He was there to prompt Oldham and Penn with questions and requests and also because the occasion for their appearance was, in fact, a literary event--this spring's 2006 North Carolina Festival of the Book.

"I'm not a musician or a music writer," Parker said by way of introduction, "but I grew up with the music of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham."

Ann Patchett

Chris Hildreth

writer Pearl Cleage

Les Todd


playwright Craig Lucas

Chris Hildreth. From top, Ann Patchett, writer Pearl Cleage, playwright Craig Lucas

Not only did he grow up listening to their songs and other classic Southern soul tunes, he added, but their kind of music helped inspire his latest book, If You Want Me to Stay, "a novel about an Eastern North Carolina white boy who loves black music, and particularly R & B." He read a pertinent passage of dialogue in which the protagonist's mentally unstable father critically expounds on his preference for Southern soul music over the Motown version of R & B.

Then, barely able to conceal an ardent fan's enthusiasm, Parker questioned the duo about their careers. "Tell me about how y'all wrote 'Cry Like a Baby,' " he requested, referring to the tune that became the second hit for the Box Tops, a short-lived Memphis rock band.

"I was about to move to Memphis," Oldham obligingly recalled. "Dan had produced 'The Letter,' by the Box Tops, and he said, 'Let's write a song for the Box Tops.' " They got together in a Memphis recording studio in the morning, Oldham said, and worked all day and into the night. "On this particular night, we had about ten titles that went into the garbage can."

Penn picked up the story: "We were about to call it a night, and we went across the street to Porky's Barbeque, at five in the morning. We couldn't even buy a buzz. Everything was just flat. So we were about to order at Porky's, and Spooner put his head on the table and said, 'I could just cry like a baby.'

"I said, 'What did you say?!'

"And we headed right back across the street. By the time we got there, I had the first line. We wrote the song in about twelve minutes, while the [audiotape] reel was going on. And I told Spooner, 'I'm not leaving this building.' It just felt so good! And the band came in the next day: 'Yeah! We've got something to cut.' It was a million-seller, a number-two hit."

The elusive, unpredictable, and sometimes startling nature of artistic inspiration was a topic that came up often at the Festival of the Book. This free, weeklong extravaganza of contemporary American letters--and a surprising amount of music--brought an audience of more than 11,000 to Duke and other Durham locations at the end of April. The program consisted of thirty-nine events and involved more than eighty writers, including high-profile authors Pat Conroy, Kaye Gibbons, Barbara Kingsolver, and Tom Wolfe. Other well-known participants included writer-humorist Roy Blount Jr., cartoonist-turned-novelist Doug Marlette, poet C.K. Williams, and political biographer Richard Reeves.

Parker's appearance with Oldham and Penn was among eight festival events that featured musicians, singer-songwriters, and other writers for whom music is a daily creative practice or a source of special interest. Festival participants with music careers included songwriting singer Mary Chapin Carpenter and legendary North Carolina indy-rock icons Don Dixon, Mitch Easter, and Chris Stamey. (Dixon and Easter produced R.E.M.'s first album, and Stamey was a founding member of the dBs, a pioneering post-punk band.)

Music was included as an integral component of the festival because it's an important touchstone in contemporary literature. Although writing is a solitary activity, writers' ideas and inspirations generally come from sources outside themselves, and music turns out to be a potent source for many writers. In a session with essayist Hal Crowther on "Politics, Music, and their Intersection," popular-music writer Peter Guralnick--author of music-themed books including the recently published biography Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke--helped explain the literary fascination with music when he said, "Music is the one thing, perhaps, in which we can place some hope."

Guralnick recalled a conversation he once had with Bob Dylan during which Dylan wanted to compare notes about writing and what inspires it. Guralnick said that his own work as a writer amounts to an ongoing search for something he can believe in, and that he finds it in the music of Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Sleepy LaBeef, Robert Johnson, and others. Artists like these stand out because of the lofty goals they've set for themselves, Guralnick said, and their talent tends to emerge "to the utter disbelief and incredulity of the people around them." Blues legend Robert Johnson's guitar-playing was unexceptional when he left home, distraught after the death of his young wife. When he reappeared two years later he played like a genius, giving birth to the legend that he had sold his soul to the devil. Guralnick said that what draws him to figures like Johnson is "the way in which inspiration flowers into something inexplicable."

Inspiration was also on the minds of Carpenter, Gibbons, and Marlette in their discussion of "Creative Process" in Page Auditorium--a session in which Carpenter also performed some of her songs.

Worth the wait: high-school student Margo Schall, above, studies for Advanced Placement test while in line to hear author Tom Wolfe

Worth the wait: high-school student Margo Schall, above, studies for Advanced Placement test while in line to hear author Tom Wolfe. Megan Morr

"People want to know, 'What is a literary life? How does that go?'" Gibbons said. "The secret is that it costs nothing; it's all about watching and listening to what's around you." Carpenter agreed, adding, "You never know where inspiration comes from. It could be just around the corner."

When Marlette asked her how she went about writing a song, Carpenter said that she usually writes the music first and later composes the lyrics. Then she immediately recalled an exception: "When I lived in D.C. [after college], I was driving around the beltway, stuck in traffic on a glorious spring day. The sky was Carolina blue, and I had my sunroof open and was looking up at the sky. And where I wished I was was driving down the two-lane highway that runs from Norfolk to the Outer Banks. And I started to think about what I would see on either side of the road." That fantasy, she said, gave rise to the lines that make up her song "I'm a Town."

poet Quincy Troupe

Chris Hildreth

musician Spooner Oldham on keyboard

Chris Hildreth

 
writer Elizabeth Spencer

Chris Hildreth. From top, poet Quincy Troupe, musician Spooner Oldham on keyboard, writer Elizabeth Spencer.

"The lyrics came first, and the music didn't come until much later," she said, making for a perfect segue into her performance of the song.

At another Griffith Theater event, Dixon and Easter picked up electric guitars to join guitar-slinging novelist Madison Smartt Bell (also on vocals)†and poet Wyn Cooper (spoken word and tambourine) in performing songs written by Bell and Cooper. (The songs are featured on their CD Forty Words for Fear, produced by Dixon and recorded at Easter's Fidelitorium Studio in Kernersville, North Carolina.) Between performances, Cooper told the story of the fortuitous way in which one of his poems inspired a few Los Angeles musicians and became a hit song.

"When Sheryl Crow was making her first album, the guys in her band didn't like her lyrics for one song they were recording," Cooper said. During a break in the session, the musicians went around the corner to a secondhand bookstore, where their casual browsing turned up one of Cooper's books, he said. "They liked this one poem in it, called 'Fun,' and they decided to get Sheryl Crow to sing this poem with the music they had," he explained. "They dropped a few of my words, and they set the song in Los Angeles. And they called me on the phone and said, 'We'd love to use your poem. Is that okay with you?' "

The resulting recording became Crow's breakout hit, "All I Wanna Do." But at the time of the phone call, Cooper recalled, smiling, no one knew who Sheryl Crow was. "And I almost said, 'You don't have to pay me.' "

The music-themed sessions exemplified the festival's emphasis on the interactive, crossover dimension of literature. Other themes explored at the festival included race relations, writers' relationships with their families and their native regions, making literary use of historical sources, and culture's influence on contemporary poetry. A few writers made solo appearances, but most appeared in conversational pairings or small groups focused on particular themes of special interest to each participant. "Fiction Born from the Legacy of Racial Violence in the South" was the topic of a conversation between novelists Lewis Nordan and Olympia Vernon, moderated by historian Timothy Tyson Ph.D. '94, author of Blood Done Sign My Name. Science-fiction writers Samuel R. Delany and John Kessell conversed about their genre as a platform for raising issues involving race, sex, and politics.

Some of the discussions were among writers and other individuals who were meeting for the first time, while others were among writers who had longstanding relationships. Robert Olen Butler and his wife, Elizabeth Dewberry--who met after both had established themselves as published novelists--talked about "Falling in Love Through Books." Allan Gurganus and his former student Ann Patchett--both novelists--discussed teaching young writers. And President Richard H. Brodhead, a literary scholar and author, moderated a discussion between two of his former Yale University students--poet Elizabeth Alexander and novelist Tom Perotta.

Also among participants who knew each other well prior to the festival were Conroy and Marlette, whose discussion in Page Auditorium was moderated by their friend Bill Ferris, director of UNC-Chapel Hill's Center for the Study of the American South, and titled "The Lessons of a Decades-long Friendship." During that session, Marlette recalled coming across lists of words and ideas in Conroy's notebooks. "I noticed that every word was capitalized," he said. "That's the thing that artists have to learn--to uppercase their experience, to say, 'This counts.' " Good writers transform quotidian experience, he said. "The more ordinary it is, the more extraordinary it becomes. That's what the artist does."

That event was one of thirty-four that took place on the festival's last two days, Saturday and Sunday, when there were often two or more scheduled events going on simultaneously or overlapping by a half hour or so. Because it was physically impossible to attend every event, festival-goers sometimes had to make tough choices. The session with Oldham, Penn, and Parker, for example, began at 3:30 on Saturday, as did Wolfe's talk in Page Auditorium, on the topic "What's Southern Today." Attendance at the former event undoubtedly suffered from the formidable competition.

Parker was good-humored about the scheduling conflict. "I saw the line for Tom Wolfe," he said, referring to the substantial crowd queued up outside Page a few minutes earlier. "But he can't sing."

The 2006 North Carolina Festival of the Book was the fourth gathering in a series initiated in 1998 by the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill, which was host for the first one. The North Carolina Literary Festival, as that inaugural celebration was called, was created and run by Rachel Davies '72, A.M. '89, now director of education and travel for Duke's Office of Alumni Affairs.

Davies' festival highlighted Southern writers and those with connections to the South through family, work, or school. Participants included Annie Dillard, Rita Dove (then U.S. Poet Laureate), John Grisham, Reynolds Price '55, and Derek Walcott. It was deemed successful, and a second festival was held in 2002, also at UNC-Chapel Hill, under the auspices of UNC's library, with assistance from its counterparts at Duke and North Carolina State University. N.C. State's library organized and hosted the third North Carolina Literary Festival in 2004. Continuing on the biennial schedule that had been informally set by the last two gatherings, Duke University Libraries oversaw the planning for this spring's festival, which began in April 2005 with the hiring of Aaron Greenwald as the festival's program director.

Greenwald, a native of northern California, was a newcomer to North Carolina when he applied for the job, but he was well qualified. His previous experience included producing and coordinating country-music videos in Nashville and directing special programs at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. He also helped organize two New Yorker festivals and the Toyota Comedy Festival, the largest comedy festival in the U.S. at the time. In the year leading up to the 2006 North Carolina book festival, Greenwald came up with the underlying concept, recruited sponsors to provide the necessary funds (a little more than $250,000), and booked all of the writers, musicians, and other festival participants.

Creative energy: literature fans pack Duke Chapel to hear Barbara Kingsolver's keynote address

Creative energy: literature fans pack Duke Chapel to hear Barbara Kingsolver's keynote address. Les Todd

"I felt that the central goal was to have a festival for the community," Greenwald says. "I wanted to rip the festival from its academic moorings and have it be more public-friendly. I wanted it to be entertaining and decipherable for people who aren't academics. I wanted to get writers who are important, but who would also be able to draw an audience."

Tayari Jones

Les Todd

Pat Conroy

Megan Morr


musician Dan Penn

Chris Hildreth. From top, novelists Tayari Jones, Pat Conroy, and musician Dan Penn

To solidify the public-friendly emphasis and further establish a distinct identity for this year's festival, Greenwald decided to give it a new name. Most literary festivals are driven by publishers intent on promoting writers with new books to sell, he explains. "We felt that we had to think of a different approach. I wanted this to be a more finely curated festival. I wanted to find some different ways that writers could talk about their work and articulate the passion behind their work to an audience."

It was the latter concern that inspired him to devise the strategy of teaming up writers who know each other or whose respective bodies of work engage related themes and appeal to similar audiences. It's an approach he'd seen effectively employed in a few sessions at the two New Yorker festivals he had helped plan, but he didn't know of any literary festivals that had used it as a central organizing principle.

Greenwald says he chose to preserve the festival's predominantly regional focus in part for practical reasons stemming from its geographical location, and in part to maintain something of the tradition established by the first three festivals in the series. But he also takes an enthusiastic personal interest in contemporary Southern writing.

"I think there is a diversity and breadth of Southern literature that is often not explored," he says, "and that in some ways the mission of this festival is to think about all of the kinds of writers we have in the South and to find the very best of them."

In homage to the archetypal Southern storyteller, forever fixed in the American imagination as an eccentric character installed in a rocking chair on a front porch, Greenwald adopted a festival logo featuring a row of rocking chairs in varied designs and colors, hinting at the emphasis on diversity. At the suggestion of Ilene Nelson, Duke Libraries' director of communications, he also arranged for most of the festival participants to sit in comfortable, green-painted, wooden rocking chairs during their public conversations. (Greenwald says he thought this was a corny idea at first but concedes that it worked, helping to maintain the relaxed, conversational tone he was aiming for.) Three of the rockers were raffled off on the final day, and the rest were given to selected participants.

One festival participant who went home with a rocking chair was Shannon Ravenel, an editor at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. She moderated a ninety-minute session on Friday evening in which Blount, Butler, and Jill McCorkle discussed Southern writing and Algonquin's New Stories from the South series, which Ravenel inaugurated and edited for twenty years. "I told everybody at the beginning that our mission for the evening was to define Southern literature by nine o'clock," Ravenel says. "We failed to do that, but we had a good discussion." The only defining characteristic of Southern literature they were all able to agree on, she says, was that "it had to have chickens in it."

Ravenel, who attended all three of the previous North Carolina festivals and has been to many other literary festivals across the country, says that this was the only one organized as a series of conversations. She commended Greenwald for bringing "a whole different vision" to the occasion. The North Carolina Festival of the Book was a successful attempt "to relate literature to our experience--through music, news, [and] politics and through issues like social change in the South. It was lively, intelligent, and totally unexpected--a very unusual way to handle a literary festival. I expected it to be lively and interesting, but I had no idea it would be as good as it was."

Greenwald also pronounced himself pleased with the results. "Every single author was gracious and happy," he says. "And how could you not be? It was a big, free festival, and you were there with your friends. It was a beautiful day on the Duke campus, and there was a whole community of bright people coming to your event. I think we really honored writers in a responsible way."

"In some ways the festival had exactly the feel I wanted it to have," he continues. "It had a relaxed, North Carolina feel, while at the same time it was absolutely a world-class festival. You see that sometimes around here when it's warm outside, and it's the right performer, and people feel that they're among friends. That doesn't happen in New York, and I don't think it happens in San Francisco, but it can happen here."

The official theme of the festival was "It's About the Story." But it was the unofficial theme that was clearly on the minds of many participants over the course of the week. In talking about the mysterious origins of inspiration, the varied forms it can take, and how it can be accessed, they all agreed that it can't be forced or faked. They also agreed that it can come from anywhere--often when least expected. The writer's main job is being receptive.

Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham seemed to be emphasizing this point when, during the musical portion of their appearance at this inspired gathering, they played and sang one of their more widely known songs.