Southern Writers Reading

the South's finest literary slugfest 

by Janet Nodar, reporting for Southern Breeze magazine

 

Southern Writers Reading, as idiosyncratic a literary event as has ever existed, happens every year on the weekend before Thanksgiving in Fairhope, Alabama. 

Founder Sonny Brewer calls SWR a ‘literary slugfest’ and ‘literature as spectator sport,’ and although these descriptions ring true to me, the event itself is really very simple. Various southern writers read from their work. Sometimes they are new to the game, sometimes they are not. 

A roomful of fellow writers and people who like to read listen to them. Afterwards, they all talk about writing. What it’s like, how you do it, why you do it, how you keep on doing it. 

This is the basic formula; it is repeated several times. Rick Bragg, new Fairhope resident, Alabama native, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, and author of Ava’s Man and All Over But The Shoutin’, is anchoring the hoedown this year.

At SWR, you will not find breakout sessions on Writing The Perfect Query Letter or on What You Should Know About Publishing Contracts. Typical writing conference fodder and useful information, sure – but not relevant here, because these topics have nothing to do with the discipline, frustration, and serious joy of writing well. 

SWR is not about the business of writing. 

It isn’t an academic event, either. 

You will not run into anyone reading fascinating papers on Marxist Poetics & False Consciousness or Queer (Wo)Men in the South. Some might consider this a shame, I suppose. SWR does not try to be all things to all people. 

It is about southern storytelling. 

As local historian, critic, and writer John Sledge puts it, SWR is rooted in Faulkner, in a gritty, blue-collar literary tradition of “hard stuff, beautifully written.”

Southern Writers Reading began in 1999 on the day that Frank Turner Hollon, a lawyer with a practice in Robertsdale, stopped by Over The Transom, Sonny Brewer’s Fairhope bookstore and small press, with a manuscript he’d had under his bed for more than a decade. 

I’ve heard this story from four different people, and it’s a little different every time, so I’m just going to give you the version I like best, in which Sonny, pre-wearied by the importunations of many wanna-be authors, said Frank would have to pay him a hundred damn dollars to read his book. 

Frank anted up and left the bookstore. 

Sonny scanned one page and chased him out into the street. “If you can keep this up, I think you’ve really got something here,” he said. Sonny kept the hundred dollars (“I’m never giving it back!” he says now) and his OTT press published Hollon’s first novel, The Pains Of April

Did they make a lot of money? Well, no. But it’s a great book.

Hollon and Brewer traveled the Southeast hawking The Pains of April at book fairs and conferences. Eventually, they decided to hold their own book event and invited the writers Tommy Franklin and William Gay to come read alongside Hollon. 

Local writer Tommy Franklin had won an Edgar for Poachers (his stellar collection of short stories) and William Gay had published his first novel The Long Home. (I believe that Gay’s short story “I hate to see that evening sun go down” will be included in the Norton Anthology within a couple of decades.) 

Anyway, that was the first SWR, in 1999. 

Well, probably in 1999. No one seems to be absolutely sure of the date, but Hollon counted backwards using his books’ pub dates and that’s what he came up with.

Anyway, when the next November rolled around, the San-Francisco-based publisher McAdam/Cage was interested in Hollon’s second book, The God File, and so publisher David Poindexter was in the audience at SWR when Sonny Brewer introduced all the writers and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could publish a book of short stories by these people?” 

Poindexter said he’d make it happen, and that’s how Stories From The Blue Moon Café began. The anthology, now in its fifth incarnation, differs every time but has been a mix of established, regional, and fledgling writers, including Hollon, Franklin, Gay, Brewer, Rick Bragg, Ellen Douglas, Charles Simic, Suzanne Hudson, Joe Formichella, Dayne Sherman, the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, and many more.

So much started from that single seed, says Hollon, from his first impetuous visit to Over The Transom. His sixth novel, Blood and Circumstance, comes out in January. 

Sonny Brewer has now published two well-received novels of his own, The Poet of Tolstoy Park, which is on its way to becoming a movie, and A Sound Like Thunder, which came out this August.

In fact, Sonny’s escalating writing career has forced him to reduce his involvement with SWR. Ever so gingerly, the event is being handed over to the non-profit Fairhope Center For The Writing Arts. Fairhope-based writer Joe Formichella is executive director and is organizing this year’s SWR. 

Skip Jones, who is an avid reader rather than avid writer, serves on the board. “I’ve been a participant at every SWR,” says Jones. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of these writers. Sonny’s gifted at finding really good emerging southern writers, and there’s hardly anything more fun than interacting with somebody who’s smart and willing to share. I’m kind of addicted to it."

Writers also respond to the organic, informal atmosphere at SWR. Joe Formichella says that SWR and Sonny Brewer coaxed him out of ‘creative writing exile’ back in 2002. 

At SWR he saw writers he’d studied with, drunk with, shared rejections slips with back in the 80s and 90s; now they were up on the stage, reading from their work. 

“That was more valuable than having them tell me how they worded their query letters,” said Formichella. What mattered was realizing that “you keep working, against these overwhelming odds. You have to will it to happen. I saw how writers arrange their lives around the work when there is no promise at the end of the road.” 

The reinforcement held; Joe’s first book, The Wreck of the Twilight Limited, was published in 2004; his second, Here’s To You, Jackie Robinson: The Legend of the Prichard Mohawks, in 2005.

Sonny Brewer has made so much happen for so many writers. Why? What motivates him? 

When I ask him this, we are sitting in his little office in Fairhope, a few feet away from the small round concrete hut that is the real place the real poet of Tolstoy Park, Henry Stuart, built and lived in early in the last century. 

Sonny has a hard time answering my question. He gets up, sits down, arranges books, flaps papers, looks up something on his computer. His conversation stubbornly loops outward, away from himself, to other writers’ lives, to the many authors he loves and constantly quotes, finally to a manuscript by a gifted young unpublished writer that is piled on his desk. He puts his hands on the pages. 

“It’s about this,” he says. “The story just turns me inside out. She wants to share it. That’s what it’s all about.” He is moved by this young writer’s struggles, by her fears, but most of all by her writing. 

Finally, to explain why he does what he does, he reads to me.



 

 

 

 

Writer 

Frank Turner Hollon, featured at the first SWR; with his wife Allison,

and Sonny

 

 

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