A few weeks ago, Linda and I ventured north to attend the Monroeville Literary Festival. This two-day event is held annually in the upstairs courtroom of the Monroe County Courthouse, the setting of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. By all measures, it exceeded our expectations.

Born in 2020, The Monroeville Literary Festival was created as a result of the 22-year legacy of the Alabama Writers Symposium, which began in 1998. Long considered the mecca for Southern writers, Monroeville is known as the Literary Capital of Alabama, and the Festival represents the best of Alabama’s distinguished writers and scholars. 

Each year, the Festival brings best-selling authors and avid readers to meet the writers, engage in lively conversation, and enjoy the opportunity to immerse themselves in Monroeville’s true Southern hospitality. The Festival committee selects several authors to receive awards for their work including the Truman Capote Prize, The Harper Lee Award, and this year, a new special Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Many authors were presented throughout the Festival which included book signings, luncheons, and dinners. Current and past books were available for purchase in the Museum store below the courtroom. Hearing accomplished authors give presentations in the courtroom where Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, Scout, and others made history was very powerful and created a surreal atmosphere of awe and wonder.

The award memorializing Truman Capote went to a gifted young writer, Kim Cross, for her recent non-fiction work, In Light of All Darkness. I knew Kim when she was a journalism student intern working in the Dean’s Office at the Culverhouse College of Commerce at the University of Alabama and was excited to catch up after so many years.

Her book took many painstaking years of research and interviews to complete. It is a story much like Capote’s work, In Cold Blood.- The story is about how the FBI and police investigated and caught one of the most famous criminals in a true-crime case in the United States, the kidnapping of 12-year-old Polly Klaas from her home in California. 

Kim’s access to first-hand accounts came through her father-in-law, a  former FBI Investigator which opened doors for her that others who have written about the case never could. In Kim’s follow-up discussion, she spoke about the years-long effort to put the pieces together and told the audience that every word written in the book is verified with zero speculation. It was fascinating!

Kim has been a freelance writer for most of her career. Her book, What Stands in a Storm, is a minute-by-minute account of the tornados that devastated Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011. She did a ten-year stint at Southern Living magazine as a writer and editor and is responsible for bringing famous author, Rick Bragg, to the back page of the magazine. 

Now living in Boise, Idaho with her husband and 16-year-old son, she is currently working on a non-fiction book about the plight of the wild Atlantic salmon that is facing extinction due to habitat alteration, pesticide pollution, and predation by non-native fish. Kim has written for The New York Times, Outside Magazine, Garden & Gun, and many other notable publications.

The next writer to be honored was Tom Franklin, who received The Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer. Tom grew up just 45 minutes from Monroeville in Dickenson, Alabama. He now teaches in the Masters of Fine Arts program at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, another place famous for its Southern literary history.

The Award was presented to Tom by Harper Lee’s nephew and grandniece, making the legacy of the prize that much more meaningful. Tom’s 2011 bestselling work, Crooked Letter. Crooked Letter, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger Award.

I found his use of self-deprecating humor to be quite engaging. Many of his books draw on his life experiences, with tales of unglamorous jobs where he worked hard in dirty warehouses in South Alabama. I purchased several of his books, which he signed and ordered for me to read chronologically. Thank you, Tom!

Next up on our Friday afternoon was the newly minted Special Lifetime Achievement Award given to Colonel Tom Kelly. Author of Tenth Legion and several other books about turkey hunting as well as leadership, Tom, a retired forester from South Alabama, was not able to attend to receive his award. His daughter stood in for him saying her 97-year-old father was suffering from “Calendaritis.” In his words, that happens when too many pages in the calendar have turned.” Well said!

Presenting the award were Daniel Haas, David Hawley, and Ann Bedsole, each of whom made remarks that placed Tom Kelly in esteemed company. Along with Haas’ grandfather, Toxey Haas, the founder of Haas Outdoors in West Point, Mississippi, manufacturers of the brand Mossy Oak, Colonel Kelly is credited with saving America’s wild turkey from extinction through conservation efforts.

Danial Haas apologized before commenting that Tom Kelley is considered “Turkey Jesus,” by many who know him. It was apparent he is adored by all, especially those who wait with bated breath for turkey season to begin each year. The season opened on Monday in Alabama. A more reverent title for Tom Kelly is “Poet Laureate of the Turkey Woods.” It was an emotional and heartfelt moment.

Ann Bedsole, having known Tom for years and a writer in her own right (Leave Your Footprint), is a significant reason the Monroeville Literary Festival exists. She told the audience that one day, she found herself at her farm not far down the road from Monroeville with nothing to read and reluctantly picked up Tenth Legion. “It is the best book I’ve ever read,” was her response. 

A fitting end to the day’s literary activities was a book signing by all the authors present. An evening reception followed with music by Diamond Reo 75, a reunion of fellow Yale graduates including Mobile’s own Bill Oppenheimer on the keyboard. They were quite good and it made for an enjoyable evening.

The next morning, we were back in the courtroom for a presentation by Ethel Morgan Smith. She recently won the 2023 Eudora Welty Prize for her book, Path to Grace: Reimagining the Civil Rights Movement. This is one of her many works that shines a light on those who worked behind the scenes, making an impact and highlighting the struggles within communities throughout the country. 

Of the many books I purchased, and after visiting with Ethel Smith at the event, Path to Grace was the first book I started reading when I returned home. It is enlightening with a strong reminder that the road to equal rights was hard. The work is not complete, but so much progress has been made. There is certainly a grace to her writing. 

Ethel has led an interesting life and has encountered many historic figures along the way. This work is a collection of stories about many people you may have never heard about, including several from Alabama. She currently resides in Birmingham where she is a writer and a scholar.

Our last presentation was a Q&A with Kelsey Bernard Clark. Kelsey is a born and raised Southerner from Dothan who as a chef, has gained fame and fortune. She was the fifth woman and first Southerner to win the title of Bravo’s Top Chef in season 16 in 2019. She released her debut cookbook, Southern Grit: 100 Down-home Recipes for the Modern Cook in 2021. 

In 2024, Kelsey was a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: South. Of her many accomplishments, she operates KCB Restaurant and Kelsey Bernard Catering in Dothan.  She enjoys gardening and is passionate about all things interior design. 

She has recently signed a two-book deal on food and entertainment with Chronicle Books. If you enjoy cooking and entertaining, you will enjoy getting to know Kelsey. As the programs concluded, we were treated to a wonderful lunch and final book-signing event at The Shop at 66, just around the corner from the Court House.

There were other authors at the event worth mentioning. I enjoyed visiting with Robert Bailey, Wall Street Journal best-selling author of the Jason Rich series, the McMurthrie and Drake legal thrillers series, the Bocephus Haynes series, and the inspirational novel, The Golfer’s Carol. Robert resides in Huntsville, and when he isn’t writing, he is a civil defense attorney in his hometown. His latest work, Rich Waters is at bookstores now. 

Also featured was writer Barbara Barcellona Smith, a California gal who comes from a large Italian family and has lots of stories to show for it! Barbara, whose most recent book, Let’s Eat Snails, now lives in Enterprise, Alabama. She spent the day before the Festival in Monroeville classrooms and headlined Saturday’s family activities. 

Jennifer Horne, who served as the twelfth Poet Laureate of Alabama from 2017- 2021, introduced her new book Odyssey of a Wandering Mind, a gripping biography of Sara Mayfield, an early twentieth-century Alabama aristocrat who led a troubled but remarkable life amid some of the literary giants of her time. 

Unfortunately, Tina Mozelle Braziel and her husband, James Braziel, both accomplished writers, had to cancel their presentation due to testing positive for COVID-19. They were missed, but it did not dampen the enthusiastic reception or the wonderful experience we all had. The Monroeville Literary Festival volunteers did a magnificent job and were kind, courteous, and always helpful.

I highly recommend you make plans to attend next year’s event. However, be prepared to be “book-poor” when you leave. Not a bad thing at all!

Mar 20, 2024
Day Trippin'

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