mississippi authors' festival, charlsie russell and her confederate ancestor

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Small Publishers Association of North America

Issue 11/2006

The Mississippi Authors’ Festival…With Just a Touch of Charlsie Russell’s History

At the end of October, I took time out to attend the Mississippi Author’s Festival in Collins, Mississippi. When I say took “time out,” even I’m not exactly sure what I mean. Must have been time out from trying to get Wolf Dawson out of here (which I haven’t managed yet), because marketing The Devil’s Bastard , my reason for attending the festival, has become a routine part of my life. At the moment, every thing I long to do/need to do, from catching up on reading to working on my sixth historical is at a standstill. I’ve even laid aside my notes in my search for a Confederate ancestor, a quest very important to me.

That search is a story in itself. I know he exists—in fact, the odds are very good that he is actually they. Everything passed to me word of mouth, for as long as I can remember, indicates he’s lurking back there in the past just waiting to be uncovered, but if you’ve ever tried to find a Russell, King, or Jamieson in the Confederate rolls from the state of Georgia, well… suffice it to say, finding one Johnny Reb bearing one of those surnames is not a problem. Finding which Johnny Reb is yours is a problem. Those three family lines, all Scottish (Highlanders, Lowlanders, and Northern Irish/Scots-Irish, and they all three flourished in all three locals), must have been a lustful bunch, and there was no scarcity of any of ’em in Georgia, either, during the middle of the 19th century.

Actually, I’ve decided finding a Confederate ancestor on my mother’s side might prove easier. I have recently discovered my great-great grandfather and the woman who would become his bride both came to Pontotoc County, Mississippi from South Carolina in the 1840’s while still young children. In more recent times, my mom’s people had all hailed from Arkansas, so I had always assumed their ancestors did, too. Wrong. The family moved to Arkansas after the War Between the States. It’s a thrill in and of itself to know I actually had ancestors in Mississippi as early as the 1840s. Always focused on my father’s people coming here in the 1880s from Georgia and Alabama, and believing the only branch on my mother’s side to come to Mississippi being herself when she married my dad, I’d never researched my mom’s side of the family for a Mississippi ancestor. Shame on me.

Anyway, this young couple up in Pontotoc County wed in January of 1861. Their first baby was born in December of 1861 (that’s eleven months in case you’re counting). The second baby didn’t arrive until March of 1866. Seven more babies followed up until April of 1880—the longest stretch between their births being 31 months. So, hey, do you see what I see? Virile daddy, fertile mama. And the dearth in babies between 1861 and 1866? Well, there’s no doubt in my mind that great-great-granddaddy was serving in the Confederate Army, doing his duty to protect his young family against an invading enemy. Proving it is a different matter. I searched the Confederate rolls accessible on the internet and couldn’t find him. Even checked the Union rolls (damn my faithless hide) just for the peace of mind of knowing he wasn’t there. I’m proud to report he wasn’t. So, he turned out to be only a lead in an old quest and another project set aside for a less stressful time—which brings me back to typesetting Wolf Dawson, marketing The Devil’s Bastard, and attending The Mississippi Author’s Festival on the 28th of October 2006.

The festival is something I want to support and be part of, though having attended one, I now have a better expectation of what I would like to achieve through participation.

As a book-selling venue, the festival was a disappointment, not only for me, but for others—though certainly not all. The authors were there, and we had our books with us. The little city of Collins had everything set up for us; the site was clean, spacious, and comfortable. There was plenty of food. The mayor came and spoke encouraging words. There had been publicity promoting the festival in the weeks prior to the event, and a few of the townsfolk did stroll through the rows of tables where we had our goods displayed. But in most (not all) cases, little in the way of books or money was exchanged. I don’t know exactly how many visitors walked through, but my guess is there were fewer browsers and buyers than there were authors selling their books, and there were around twenty-four authors. In other words, most of the people at the Mississippi Authors’ Festival appear to have been other authors, and we were there to sell books, not to buy them.

Realizing fairly early in the day that there were not going to be buyers for my book, I concentrated instead on my fellow authors. To the best of my recollection, there was not one author present published by a big publishing house—and we know Mississippi has a lot of “published” authors (some of you included). The authors participating in the festival were primarily published by small presses, subsidy presses, and, like me, self-published. We created our stories from a myriad of backgrounds and produced our books in a variety of innovative formats (some of you also fit into this category). My rough guess is that ninety percent of us present dug deep into our own pockets (or went into debt) to produce our books.

I sold only one book and that was to the festival representative who helped me set up my table. That was right after I arrived. I was certain at that point that I was going to have a great sales day. Eventually, I gave one book away to an editor at the Simpson County News in Magee in hopes of garnering a feature article in a “hometown” paper. For those of you who don’t already know, my people are (or once were) from Braxton in Simpson County, and that’s where my granddaddy Russell’s farm, which Jay and I now own, is located. (If you’re wondering, to the best of my knowledge, there’s been no feature article published.)

I traded two more of my books for two other books—one to Judy Tucker and Lottie Bogan, co-editors of From the Sleeping Porch, an anthology of Southern writings by a group called The Red Dog Writers, which includes our own Rickey Mallory and Melanie Noto. Rickey’s and Melanie’s contributions to Porch are not romances. In fact, I do believe Rickey and Melanie might be harboring a weird streak in them—that’s a characteristic of the Southern writer, right? I could say the same of the other writer with whom I traded work. That young man’s name is Larry Taylor and he’s from Hattiesburg. He wrote a very entertaining, fictional tale called My Best Days, Your Worst Nightmare. Once I got into that book, I found myself rooting for the hero (“anti-hero” might be a better term for the guy—and you think lynching is considered a sick form of Southern justice? Check out Corey Foster’s idea of getting even).

I also bought four books, but three of those composed a trilogy written by Cleveland Payne from Laurel. Mr. Payne is a student of history, and his area of expertise is the Spanish Civil War. So far, I’ve read only the first novella, The House on the Boulevard, which introduces the trilogy’s central character, Slim McCall. The story is filled with descriptions of a Laurel and southern Mississippi from a bygone age and vignettes highlighting Mr. Payne’s in-depth passion for the Spanish people who struggled in that brutal war between the World Wars.

Being that my fictional works are set in Mississippi and my marketing depends on local Mississippi readers, an event such as The Mississippi Authors’ Festival should, theoretically, be my bread and butter. On that note, I would like to see the Mississippi Authors’ Festival become more of a book festival with organizers focused on drawing book buyers from Mississippi’s independent bookstores, as well as their wholesalers/distributors, to the event. Readers, gift shop owners, and the community reps of the big chains and anyone else interested in perusing books, of course, should still be encouraged to attend. The large chain bookstores are restricted somewhat by their corporate headquarters as to which books they can carry in their stores. Some headquarters, however, allow their community reps a great deal of autonomy in dealing with local authors. The new focus would offer authors the opportunity to promote their books to Mississippi’s bookstore buyers.

But note that the opinion expressed above is mine only. Remember, that in addition to being an author, I am also a publisher who hopes to publish many books. I market my books with that in mind, meaning I offer bookstore buyers discounts, free shipping, returns, etc., the price of doing business. In putting forth my proposal, I must consider that many of the authors attending the 2006 festival are not interested in giving bookstores discounts, free shipping, or accepting returns, but would prefer to sell their books outright at full retail price to readers and enjoy all the profit. Neither method is right or wrong; each is simply a matter of meeting different personal and business needs.

In summation, the Mississippi Author’s Festival proved a unique and fun event, showcasing a wonderful blend of Mississippi writers who produce a wide range of books that include cookbooks, short stories, memoirs, fiction (love, mystery, suspense, you name it), and…ha!, history. Oh my gosh, I almost forgot to mention that last book I bought, and my anecdote to this article. As it turns out, the book was a Civil War history (non-fiction) put together by David Williamson (a Northerner) in honor of his wife’s (a Southerner) great-great grandfather. That sucker cost me $55.00—to have made a trade I would have had to give the Williamsons four of mine for one of theirs. But I’d have given them a hundred if that’s what it had taken, because finding one’s twenty-one-year-old great-great grandfather, already a young husband and a daddy, in the rolls of Company G, Pontotoc County Volunteers, Third Battalion (and 45th Mississippi Regiment), Mississippi Infantry, Confederate States Army, now that ladies and gentlemen, is “priceless.”

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