Southern Festival of Books Preview, Part II: What Really Inspires Nashville Authors Alice Randall, Tiana Clark, and Sarah Hays Coomer

Meet the authors this weekend at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville! (photo: Lisa Eveleigh for

Authors: they play the Hamilton soundtrack nonstop, just like us. (And they geek out over great sushi, a perfect poem, and hilarious stand-up comedy.) We asked three Nashville writers who will be reading and signing at the Southern Festival of Books this weekend, October 14-16, to tell us more about what keeps them going between projects, all about their pop culture guilty pleasures, and who’s doing work they envy.

Alice Randall (photo: Bob Delavante)

You may often hear Alice Randall referred to as a “treasure.” (Nashville treasure, literary treasure, culinary treasure — take your pick.) Remember her charming essay in Lit Hub last year about the festival, and that darling photo of her with her daughter, writer Caroline Randall Williams, as a toddler? “Attending the Southern Festival of Books is the closest a visitor can come to being an instant insider in Nashville, where the New South begins,” Randall wrote. The Harvard grad and Vanderbilt professor is the author of The Wind Done Gone, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, Rebel Yell and Ada’s Rules, and Soul Food Love, a cookbook and memoir she and daughter Caroline produced together. Fun fact: Randall is the first black woman in history to write a number-one country song (“XXXs and OOOs,” recorded by Trisha Yearwood).

Tiana Clark (photo: Crystal Martel)

Forget fluffy clouds and stuffy old philosophers: Tiana Clark is making poetry badass again. While she works on completing her MFA at Vanderbilt University, she also serves as the poetry editor of Nashville Review and can often be spotted around town reading her original verse. Critics and fellow poets have taken note of her talent, awarding the Pushcart Prize-nominated writer the 2016 Academy of American Poets Prize and 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. She’s the author of the chapbook Equilibrium, selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition sponsored by Bull City Press. (Equilibrium will be available online soon; it’s for sale in our store and will be sold at the Parnassus Books festival tent!)

Sarah Hays Coomer (photo: Stacie Huckeba)

Sarah Hays Coomer is spreading a message: trying to feel good doesn’t have to feel bad. Calling herself a #DietAbolitionist, she rejects harsh diets, brutal workouts, and lifestyle overhauls that pit people against their bodies. Rather, she gives individuals the tools and encourages them to find “authentic well-being in whatever way you can manage.” She doles out advice and reflection on her blog, Strength Outside In, and for her first book, Lightness of Body and Mind, the personal trainer went on tour offering bits of memoir and client stories as inspiration.

All three will be at the Festival this weekend. But first, they all took our Authors in Real Life quiz:

I’ve been listening to . . . 
11026089_1081950275165182_4116021958177282708_nRandall: Hamilton. Chancellor Nick Zeppos and I are teaching a course on the Federalist Papers in the Spring and Hamilton is my class prep music of choice.
Clark: Chance The Rapper, Nina Simone, the Jazz for Sleep playlist on Spotify, Poetry Magazine Podcast, Two Dope Queens Podcast, and always Beyoncé.
Coomer: A reggae band from Peru called Laguna Pai. Their record Kultura Babylon is pure joy, and if you’re so inclined, there are videos on YouTube of them playing their tunes (shirtless) on a pier in Peru. You’re welcome.

I love to watch . . . 
Randall: Whatever’s playing at the Belcourt, particularly whatever is playing at the upstairs little theater. For me, the Belcourt is the cornerstone of the Nashville Art Scene.
Clark: Dancing with the Stars. I don’t even feel guilty about it — pure pleasure.
Coomer: The Americans, House of Cards . . . anything with high drama, psychological subterfuge, and a little bit of good old-fashioned sex.

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-11-48-28-amSomething I saw online that made me laugh, cry, or think . . . 
Randall: The lack of civility online, the disdain for reason and facts, makes me think hard about how polarized the world is becoming and why.
Clark: The Terence Crutcher police shooting in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This makes me cry and think on repeat about modern day lynching, about scrolling through Facebook and seeing murders like this happen on a daily basis — all that violence at our fingertips. It makes me think about Citizen by Claudia Rankine, “Because white men can’t / police their imagination / black men are dying.”
Coomer: I saw an article in The Atlantic by Jennie Dear about what it’s like when you’re dying and your body starts to shut down. I feel like those final moments of life could be some of the most awesome and peaceful if we approach them differently.

Best meal I’ve had recently . . . 
Randall: A late afternoon tea at my daughter’s apartment on 12 South. There is little more delightful than being gathered around a Sunday table with smart women, talking books and movies, while nibbling on fresh cut cucumber sandwiches, two kinds of smoked salmon, a fab homemade hummus, and sipping on Prosecco.
Clark: King Salmon nigiri with truffle salt and lime at Kanpai Japanese Sushi Bar & Grill in Los, Angeles. Best sushi of my LIFE.
Coomer: I had an omelet in Austin a few weeks ago that blew my socks off. We need more fresh, down-home places in Nashville, sans foam and foie gras. Good, whole food under $20 with a bar.

A creator who’s doing something I envy . . . 
Randall: Carla Hall is curating the food choices at the new restaurant in the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History that’s just opened on The Mall in Washington.
thumb-2Clark: Lemonade — the visual album from Beyoncé’s latest record. Hybridity is something I’ve been meditating about in literature: Cane by Jean Toomer, Spring and All by William Carlos Williams, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, etc. So to see this fusion of music and cinema done in such a provocative and probing way, all while incorporating poetry from Warsan Shire and Black Feminist critical theory — I was undone. I’m also in the middle of preparing my creative writing thesis for graduate school at Vanderbilt, and when I saw Lemonade I literally thought, could I just turn this in? I envy it because I “see” myself for the first time represented in a three-dimensional, living, complicated, violent, lovely, broken, and powerful way. Ain’t I a woman?
Coomer: Tig Notaro is a dry, hilarious comedian who manages to make light of dark topics, including her own struggles with breast cancer. Stand up comedy is the most terrifying thing I can imagine, but she’s masterful. She makes it more than OK to laugh about hallowed issues we usually tiptoe around.

The book I most recently recommended to someone else . . . 
Randall: Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.
Clark: Sula by Toni Morrison and Bastards of the Reagan Era by Reginald Dwayne Betts. Plus, I’m always telling people about Lighthead by Terrance Hayes — one of my favorite poetry books of all time. It’s pretty much always on my person. Here an excerpt from “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy”:
      I believe everything is a metaphor for sex.
      Lovemaking mimics the act of departure, moonlight
      drips from the leaves. You can spend your whole life
      doing no more than preparing for life and thinking.
      “Is this all there is?” Thus, I am here where poets come
      to drink a dark strong poison with tiny shards of ice,
      something to loosen my primate tongue and its syllables
      of debris. I know all words come from preexisting words
      and divide until our pronouncements develop selves.
Coomer: I recently recommended The Bullfighter Checks Her Make Up by Susan Orlean.

The last event I bought tickets to was . . . 
screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-12-03-54-pmRandall: The Food History Gala at the Smithsonian coming up later this month. Rick Bayless is being honored, and it should be a wonderful evening. I love food history and Bayless’s Mexican dishes.
Clark: Beyoncé — The Formation World Tour. Are you noticing a theme yet? Ha!
Coomer: Beck at the Pilgrimage Festival. He blew everyone out of the water.

Most meaningful recent travel destination . . . 
Randall: Martha’s Vineyard. I go there often and find so much inspiration from those farm acres rising up from the sea, but this year, for the first time in a long time, I went back to visit the house where novelist Dorothy West lived and wrote. It was profound inspiration for me.
Clark: I recently visited my extended family in California. I had the chance to sit a long table with good food and ask them questions about our genealogy and history, about my great-grandmother Freelove — she was a single mother of 12 children during the Great Depression living on a farm in North Carolina. As I am getting older and more appreciative of my elders, I want to capture as much of my family’s oral history before they pass. For me, it’s about Sankofa — a word and symbol in the Twi language of Ghana that translates as “Go back and get it.” It’s about the importance of learning from the past. I come from a lineage of resilient black women, and I want their stories and voices with me as heirlooms as I am tracing and placing my sense of self within in my work.
Coomer: I went to San Francisco recently for some book tour events. Everything I thought would be perfect was terrible, and everything I thought would be terrible was perfect. It was awesome and misty and surprising.

I wish I knew more about . . . 
Randall: Santorini, Greece. I’ve just committed to going there in early summer with a group of scholars and writers. At present all I know about Santorini is that it is beautiful. I want to know much more by June.
Clark: My father. I have never met him. I would like to know if he has any funky ailments I need to know about as well as what he does with his hands. I see poems as conversations, so in way I am always talking to him or about him or through him as persona. But I would like to ask him a few questions about his life or if he ever thinks of me.
Coomer: Why my dog feels the need to roll in poop every time I’m late for the

My favorite thing about bookstores . . . 
Randall: I love being able to step a few feet in any direction, reach out, open a book, and be inside someone else’s mind, then step in another direction and be somewhere else completely, inside another someone’s mind. I love that the choices are curated by people I can know, that a book doesn’t end up on a shelf unless someone loves it, thinks it’s a necessary addition. I love bumping into the other people in a bookstore, the other buyers and the charming sellers. And sometimes I get to meet my readers in bookstores. That’s a joy too. If the world was coming to an end and I had to seek shelter in a place somewhere not my home, I would want it to be in a bookstore.
Clark: The smell of books, thumbing through pages, reading blurbs, strumming my hand across the slick covers, talking to the staff about their favorites, and of course, finding a new book I didn’t know I needed. I still feel like Belle from Beauty and the Beast a bit when I first walk in and see such a wonderful collection of literature. If I could twirl around like she did in a buttercream dress I would, or maybe I have.
Coomer: Setting my son loose and seeing where he lands. The books he chooses give me a window into the storylines he’s dreaming up in his own head.

 * * *

See these authors at the Festival:

13411789_10154209506653582_3985132482020173772_o-1“On the Pleasures of Owning Persons: The Hidden Face of American Slavery” – Alice Randall and Volney P. Gay, 12-1 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 14, in the Legislative Plaza room 29. 

“Enduring Legacies: The Best of Pulitzer Fiction” — Alice Randall, Rebecca Wells, and C. Michael Curtis, 2:30-3:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 14, in the Nashville Public Library Banner Room

“Listen to Me: Bold Poetic Voices” – Tiana Clark and Jordan Rice, 3-4 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 14, in Nashville Public Library conference room 3

“Shaping the Mind, Body, and Soul: Books on Wellness” – Sarah Hays Coomer and JT Collins, 3-4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 16, in Nashville Public Library  conference room 2

 More highlights:

Don’t miss Part One of our festival preview — featuring novelists Megan Abbott, Brad Watson, and Angela Flournoy. Find it here!

Check out the abundance of Nashvillian writers: Just for starters, you can see:  Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Robert Hicks, JT Ellison, Jason Miller, Erica Wright, Clay Stafford, Andrew Maraniss, Victoria Schwab, Jeff Zentner, and more other local talents than we have space to list here (see the complete Southern Festival of Books schedule) — not to mention ongoing events with children’s authors and illustrators, plus crafts, music, and plenty of food to keep the whole family occupied and fueled up between sessions.

Notable nonfiction: True stories abound at the Southern Festival, including discussions with Matthew Desmond (Evicted), Adam Hochschild (Spain in Our Hearts), Arlie Russell Hochschild (Strangers in Their Own Land), Peter Guralnick (Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock-n-Roll), and several other fantastic memoirists, historians, artists, chefs, and more.

Come say hello! We’ll be right in the center of the plaza, staffing the big book tent and offering all these authors’ books for sale. (photo:

Download the app to make your own personal schedule based on favorite authors, have a map at the ready, and scope out parking. See you this weekend!