Southern Festival of Books Preview: Q&A with Novelists Angela Flournoy, Megan Abbott, and Brad Watson


If you’ve been to the Southern Festival of Books before, you know that every year seems to outdo the last with its lineup of superstar authors and emerging talents. True to form, this year does not disappoint. We hope you’ll eat your Wheaties, don your comfortable shoes, and join us this Friday, October 14 – Sunday, October 16 downtown on the legislative plaza. As a preview, we talked to three fiction writers who will be visiting Nashville for the events.

Angela Flournoy (photo: LaToya T. Duncan)

Angela Turner’s debut novel, The Turner House, took the world by storm last year, tackling subjects such as addiction and mental health by telling the story of the Turner family and their struggle to hang onto their family home in Detroit during an economic downturn. The New York Times called Flournoy’s writing, “artful without being showy,” and the book was short-listed for the National Book Award, among many (many, many) others. (Read more from Flournoy in her fantastic interview with Humanities Tennessee’s Chapter 16.)

Megan Abbott (photo: Drew Reilly)

With the timing of a perfectly executed flip, Edgar Award-winning author Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me hit shelves just as the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio were getting underway, providing a dark psychological portrait of the world of competitive gymnastics — much as 2012’s popular Dare Me did with high school cheerleading. In a review, NPR noted that the literary thriller “thrums with the edge and energy of teenage girlhood; the wild want, the wild daring . . . wild selfishness.” (Check out Abbott’s interview in Entertainment Weekly for more about how she got into the minds of her characters.)

Brad Watson (photo: Nell Hanley)

Brad Watson’s Miss Jane sneaked up on readers this year, a quiet release in early fall that built to thunderous critical praise. As Jessica Pearson wrote for BookPage, “About three pages into Miss Jane I found myself both transfixed and perplexed. Who is this Brad Watson and why am I just now discovering him?” The novel was long-listed for the 2016 National Book Award (Watson was also a finalist in 2002 for  The Heaven of Mercury). As The Washington Post put it, Watson’s story about a woman born with an unusual physical defect “covers a quiet, often solitary lifetime enriched by the unfettered outdoors, the tough routine of farm life, and the ache of unconsummated love.” (Reader Jennifer Puryear offered more Q&A with Watson on her blog, Bacon on the Bookshelf, last week.)

Get to know these writers a little better before you meet them at the Festival, as they take our Authors in Real Life quiz:

I’ve been listening to . . .
Flournoy: The New York Times Magazine has a new podcast called Still Processing with writers Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris. The two of them have great chemistry and are fun to listen to talk about the cultural happenings of the moment.
Abbott: For podcasts, You Must Remember This, hosted by Karina Longworth and, for music, Teens of Style by Carseat Headrest.
screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-4-20-29-pmWatson: For some reason I cannot at all figure out, I haven’t been able to get Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” out of my mind. It’s not driving me crazy, but I’d rather it were something else. Am I flash-backing to my teen elopement marriage? Also it’s pretty frequent for me to run R.L. Burnside’s cover of “Everything Is Broken” through there, too. We’re temporarily living in a barn and everything’s disorganized so my best music player device is my brain, which is unfortunate.

I love to watch . . .
Flournoy: Television with diverse casts. The series Atlanta on FX is a current favorite.
Abbott: Real Housewives of New York (if you want to explore women, aggression and power, this show lays it all bare) and ESPN’s 30/30 documentaries. I just watched the one about Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, which was so moving.
Watson: Our two dogs — and how they tussle when, a) they’re just happy to be running around the corral, and b) when they’re doing it purely to show off to a visitor. It reminds me of when I was a kid and my little brother and I would play-fight, and we always hummed the background music that old TV shows played whenever cowboys fought on TV (it didn’t seem weird at the moment). Except we never got into the humping contest that invariably becomes the centerpiece of our dogs’ performance. Thank God.

Something I saw online that made me laugh, cry, or think . . .
Flournoy: I read this profile of Isabelle Mège by Anna Heyward on the New Yorker website, and I’ve been thinking about artistic vision, collaboration and the benefits of having an an obsessive nature ever since. Mège spent over two decades corresponding with (hounding, really) photographers she admired and asking them to photograph her. The result is a collection of very different, but consistently arresting images.
Abbott: Taffy Akner’s profile of Bill May, the greatest male synchronized swimmer, for ESPN Magazine. I love everything she writes because it always surprises me, makes me laugh and frequently moves me. If you had told me I’d ever read, rapaciously, a fourteen-page story about the world’s greatest male synchronized swimmer and be affected by it, I’d have said, “It had to have been written by Taffy Akner.”
Watson: No matter how much they post about it, I just can’t figure out Trump’s hair. Also, the idea that dropping something like 2500 bombs a month on Syria and Iraq is not aggressive enough. Whatever happened to the great spies who we used to think could help us avoid all this shit?

Best meal I’ve had in the past month . . .
Flournoy: I had a whole snapper and saffron risotto in Byron Bay, Australia. The snapper was the biggest I’d ever seen and delicious.
screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-4-24-23-pmAbbott: If I’m honest, it was either the overnight oats at Mazarine Coffee in San Francisco, or a particularly insane set of happy-hour snacks at a Claim Jumper deep in Orange County. I was in book tour and met up with my best friend, Alison Quinn, and we had a little time to kill so we impulsively stopped at Claim Jumper and had the best time ever drinking beer and devouring all manner of fried pickles and potato wedges.
Watson: Pork bellies with sauteed kale (great, could have been chopped a little more), and some kind of salad-y dish I can’t remember so well because the pork bellies were so very good. Yes, I know, kale is a yuppie-type joke, but you just can’t get away from it these days. When I was a kid, man, my mom would have stewed that stuff for about three days, in pork fat.

A creator who’s doing something I envy . . .
screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-4-28-47-pmFlournoy: I’m not a person who envies often; I generally admire, and shamelessly emulate if possible. To that end, Issa Rae, the writer and star of the up soling HBO series Insecure, is a creator I admire because of the way her humor feels unforced, and for her portrayal of a young, cool, black Los Angeles that I wish I was a part of. Too bad I live in Brooklyn.
Abbott: All the wonderful female showrunners and writers fighting their way onto TV, doing brave and wild stuff.
Watson: My buddy Jason Burge. He’s trained a good bird dog, and he’s making great music. Every now and then he works on his novel. And he’s moving to New Zealand with his girlfriend.

The book I most recently recommended to someone else . . .
Flournoy: I think I recommended The Mothers, by Brit Bennett, to my own mother for her book club. The novel — about community, secrets, and coming of age — comes out this month. I want my mother and everyone else to keep an eye out for it.
Abbott: Marcy Dermansky’s novel, The Red Car. Funny, beautiful, strange, poignant—and utterly original.
Watson: Kelly Link, Get in Trouble.


The last event I bought tickets to was . . .
Flournoy: Zadie Smith in conversation with Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah at the 92nd Y in New York.
Abbott: Tickets to the Met Breuer for the Diane Arbus: In the Beginning exhibit, which was spectacular, and to The Killing, one of my favorite films noir, directed by a very young Stanley Kubrick, which was playing at Film Forum in New York City.
Watson: My trip to the dump today. It was a doubleheader. The first trip was all green waste, and free. The second was all kinds of ranch crap, and cost $12. But there was a small herd of pronghorn (what some call antelope) hanging around the dump, for some reason I can’t figure — there’s no grass out there. It’s a haven for seagulls (even in Wyoming), but pronghorn? Maybe because it’s pronghorn hunting season and they know that no one will shoot them at the dump.

Most meaningful recent travel destination . . .
Flournoy: I spent a month on book tour in Australia this August and my mother accompanied me. We ate Vegemite for the first time (it’s okay) and snuck in a side trip to Bali.
screen-shot-2016-10-06-at-4-37-44-pmAbbott: Back to Oxford, MS, my home away from home, both because so many of my dearest friends live there and I spent a wonderful year there as a a writer-in- residence. And to Paris for the Festival America, a celebration of American literature.
Watson: Washington, D.C., to be part of a benefit celebration for the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. And the almost-brand-new Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson.

I wish I knew more about . . .
Flournoy: My grandparents.
Abbott: Boy, so many things, but certainly wine. At least I’m a cheap date.
Watson: Why I did most of the things I’ve done.

My favorite thing about bookstores . . .
Flournoy: I love reading the notes that accompany staff picks. They’re always so earnest and precise about what makes a book worth reading.
Abbott: Everything. I was basically raised in them. But if I had to pick, I’d say it was the people I meet in them, behind the counter, or browsing. When I walk inside one, no matter where I am, I feel like I’m with my people and I’m at home.
Watson: The great booksellers who really read their books and write smart recommendations about them for their customers.

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See these authors at the Festival:

26530309“Most Exquisite Mayhem: New Novels by American Masters”Brad Watson and Donald Ray Pollack, 3-4:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 14, in the Nashville Public Library Auditorium; Brad Watson will speak again from 12-1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 15, in the Library auditorium

3e060e62f3695c249f0f6a706700786bYou Will Know Me – Megan Abbott, 1-2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 15, in Legislative Plaza room 12

flournoypaperbackart“Moving Forward on Shifting Ground: Two Detroit Novels” – Angela Flournoy and Christopher J. Hebert, 2-3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 16, in Legislative Plaza room 12

A few more highlights:

Saturday, 9:30-11 a.m. – Coffee with the Authors, hosted by the Women’s National Book Association and moderated by Mary Laura Philpott, featuring Adam Haslett (Imagine Me Gone), Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing), Curtis Sittenfeld (Eligible), and Danielle Dutton (Margaret the First) Note: It is recommended that you reserve seats for this event, which takes place in the Nashville Public Library Auditorium. Up to two seats at a time may be reserved by emailing Lee Fairbend at

163560Saturday, 2:30-3:30 p.m. – “They Have to Take You In: Two Novels of Family” featuring Ann Patchett (Commonwealth) and Adam Haslett (Imagine Me Gone) in conversation, in the Nashville Public Library Auditorium

Other fiction highlights — more authors than we have room to list! Just for starters: John Hart (Redemption Road), Katy Simpson Smith (Free Men), Ed Tarkington (Only Love Can Break Your Heart), Jay McInerney (Bright Precious Days), Helen Ellis (American Housewife), Gayle Forman (Leave Me), Julia Franks (Over the Plain Houses), and so many more you can find on the complete Southern Festival of Books schedule — not to mention dozens of YA authors and children’s book creators and entertainers, throughout the weekend!

Download the app for quick schedule consultations, maps, and more to help you plan your weekend! (Tip: come hungry. This festival gets GOOD food trucks!)

Next up on Musing: Three more author interviews, plus highlights from notable nonfiction and local authors — coming Wednesday!