Updated: May 24
From romance to crime novels, psychological thrillers, historical fiction, Southern Gothic literature and humorous commentary, guests at the 2019 Southern Voices authors conference Saturday had plenty of genres to discuss.
About 350 people heard talks from eight authors, including Melanie Benjamin, Sean Dietrich, J.T. Ellison, Patti Callahan Henry, Roger Johns, David Joy, Gin Phillips and Lori Roy.
Henry, who has homes both in Mountain Brook and Bluffton, South Carolina, shared about her latest novel “Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis.”
Henry said she set out to get inside the heart and mind of Davidman and show how she wasn’t just the wife of Lewis but a complicated woman in her own right. She at one time was an atheist and communist but gave up both. She was a reformed Jew, poet, novelist, essayist, lover and mother of two children, Henry said.
She gave up her life in America and sailed to England to be with Lewis,which Henry said shows that love and the search for truth is worth the sometimes convoluted and complicated path of making significant life changes.
Southern Voices 2-23-19 Patti Callahan Henry speaks at the authors conference at the Southern Voices Festival at the Hoover Public Library in Hoover, Alabama, on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019.
Joy, an author from the mountains of North Carolina, talked about growing up in a family of oral storytellers. He’s not good at telling stories orally, but he has always enjoyed writing since his childhood and can remember handing his father something he had written and watching him laugh.
“I find it amazing to think that blots of ink on pages can elicit an emotional response,” he said. You can be sitting in a room by yourself, read something on a page and feel your heart get ripped in two or start laughing, he said. “I think that’s still what amazes me and what drives me.”
Phillips, who lives in Birmingham, said it’s interesting how two people can read the same book and walk away with different feelings and lessons learned, based on their own life experiences.
Ellison, who lives in Nashville, talked about how one of her characters is the embodiment of her own hero complex. The character, homicide Lt. Taylor Jackson, is the best of Ellison amplified by 1,000, she said. “She is everything that I wish I could be but would never be.”
But that also means that the bad characters in her books must somehow represent the bad part of herself, she said. “They have to come from somewhere.”
Johns, who spoke at the same time as Ellison, said all the bad characters in his books represent people he hates in real life and he’s not afraid to let bad things happen to them in his books.
Ellison said she doesn’t kill off characters based on people she doesn’t like. “I worry about the karma,” she said. “I don’t kill people I know. I don’t kill people I don’t like. I can’t do it. I’m scared to death it’s going to come back on me.”
Benjamin, who hails from Chicago, talked about her latest book, “The Girls in the Picture,” which follows the friendship and creative partnership between two of Hollywood’s earliest female legends — screenwriter Frances Marion and silent film star Mary Pickford.
She spent her time Saturday telling parts of the women’s life stories and how they were pioneers for women in the film industry, which was mostly dominated by men.
Dietrich’s presentation was much different. He told his own life story much like a humorous monologue performance. Dietrich shared how he dropped out of school in the seventh grade after his father died but later was encouraged to get his general education diploma and go on to college.
Inspired by the work of former Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Lewis Grizzard, he is known for his commentary on life in the American South. Dietrich has written 10 book, and his work has appeared in Southern Living, Good Grit, The Tallahassee Democrat, South Magazine, The Yellowhammer News, The Bitter Southerner, Thorn Magazine and the Press-Register in Mobile.
John Limbaugh, a Gardendale resident who was in the audience Saturday, said he comes to most of the shows at the Hoover Library Theatre, but this was his first time to come to the Southern Voices Festival.
His wife, who has been to the festival the past five or so years, encourages him to do lots of things he wouldn’t otherwise do, he said.
“The conference was great,” he said. Even though it went from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., “the time flew by. I would have liked for it to have gone about eight hours longer because it was so interesting and never boring. I’ll probably start reading again.”
Joyce Cattelane, a resident of The Falls and Woods of Hoover Apartments, said this was her first time to come to Southern Voices, as well.
“It will not be the last if I can get tickets next year,” she said. “I never realized there were so many wonderful Southern authors I was unaware of.”
Her favorite to hear today was Joy. “I’ve read every one of his books,” she said. “They are articulate, melancholy. You care about the characters.”
Joy described himself as an avid outdoorsman who is obsessed with the woods and fishing and hates being indoors.
Cattelane said that after seeing him in person and hearing him speak, “you wonder how this country boy can speak to your heart so heartbreakingly.”
Saturday’s authors conference was the finale for the Southern Voices Festival. The festival began Tuesday with a lecture and art exhibition by new media artist Elisabeth Pellathy, printmaker Scott Stephens and sculptor Lee Somers, who together produced artwork that explores the Cahaba River watershed.
Then on Wednesday and Thursday, singer Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls performed concerts. Friday night, Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, gave the headline speech for the festival.
See more photos from the 2019 Southern Voices Festival here.