By Cate Czarnecki
For as long as there have been means to travel, writers have been drawn to the open road. As John Steinbeck wrote in his non-fiction saga Travels with Charley: In Search of America, “Who has not known a journey to be over and done before the traveler returns? The reverse is also true: many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased.” Indeed, the writer’s unencumbered pilgrimage into the great wilds of the nation has become as much a part of the American literary tradition as the Great American Western or the allegorical baseball novel.
The Southern Summer Comfort Book Tour may or may not be one of those trips.
Five female writers and their friends have decided to break out the cutoff jean shorts and cue up the Kid Rock this July, taking lower America by storm. Their six-part literary spree will arrive in New Orleans at 8 p.m. this Friday, July 13, at the Mudlark Theater (1200 Port St., at Marais).
The road-tripping authors—Elizabeth Ellen, Mary Miller, Chloe Caldwell, Brandi Wells and Donora Hillard—hail from New York, Michigan, Mississippi, and Alabama. They are all established in the world of American indie lit not only as authors, but as publishers and editors, as well. They will be joined at the Mudlark by New Orleans writers Utahnah Faith and Delaney Nolan, as well as Portland-based author and publisher Kevin Sampsell. Sampsell is the veteran of the group, with stalwart indie credibility he has earned through his 20-year stewardship of Future Tense Books. He is also author of the well-received memoir A Common Pornography.
“I’d been wanting to do a tour for a while, and I feel like I always knew it would be me and a bunch of ladies.” explains Elizabeth Ellen, tour co-organizer and designated rental van driver. “Then in January or February, Mary Miller and I took a long weekend trip down to Fort Lauderdale and talked seriously about doing a summer tour.” Their original plan was to follow the route of the Dollar Store Tour—a literary tour in 2009 organized by Chicago-based literati affiliated with Featherproof Books—which included the Southern Summer Comfort itinerary as well as stops in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. “But then it seemed like no one except me could be gone that long,” Ellen says, “and since two of the five of us were in the South, we limited the tour to there.”
The group that Ellen and friend/co-organizer Mary Miller have assembled amounts to something of a vanguard of contemporary independent American literature. A broad and vaguely accurate description of their collective work would likely include the term “flash-fiction” and mention the website HTMLGIANT. Ellen heads the books division of Hobart, a respected name in hip online lit journals that branched into print publishing in 2006. She has published a story collection and a chapbook, the latter with Future Tense Press. Brandi Wells is an editor on Hobart’s web side, Mary Miller is widely published in good journals and is the author of a story collection and two chapbooks, Chloe Caldwell is the author of a collection of essays, and Donora Hillard is author of several books of poetry, including Theology of the Body. The ladies also reportedly like to drink whiskey, listen to Lil’ Wayne, and indulge in the occasional breakfast taco.
Mary Miller, who now lives in Austin, is one of two writers on the trip who are originally from the South. She was born in Jackson, Miss., and received her MA from the University of Southern Mississippi. Her most recent short story collection, Big World, (edited by Ellen) has been one of the group’s most successful books. “Mississippi is still my world,” Miller says, despite her move to Texas. “Place is very important in my writing, but place, in my mind, encompasses nearly everything—what’s sitting on the coffee table, what people are wearing, how people speak to each other, and how they lie to and deceive one another.”
As far as her background has influenced her writing, she says: “I don’t spend much time describing the physical landscape, but Mississippi isn’t very visually interesting. It’s mostly flat and full of pine trees and strip malls. There are no mountains. It’s green but not a beautiful, lush green. The physical landscape is by far the least interesting thing about Mississippi.”
One of the unifying qualities of the group’s writing is their mutual attention to personal narratives that embody—but are by no means limited to—aspects of the female American experience. That being said, their work (and the Southern Summer Comfort Tour as a whole) also hopes to defy the understanding of literature and literary events as inherently serious undertakings. Prior to departing, Ellen imagined a trip filled with more than just sober, solemn readings and dry theoretical literary discussions. “I’m envisioning streaking, skinny-dipping, and generally stunts that involve clothing removal and water.” she says. “Fountains are good.”
This sounds like the perfect attitude for a New Orleans book event.