Photo courtesy of Ben Benschneider.
Tickets for the 2016 Southern Voices Festival go on sale Jan. 8, and Hoover Public Library officials are expecting strong demand to see and hear this year’s lineup.
Award-winning author Erik Larson will be the headliner for this year’s festival, set for Feb. 23-27. Larson, the author of five books on the New York Times bestseller list, is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. in the Hoover Library Theatre on Feb. 26.
He will be followed on Feb. 27 by a diverse group of authors that includes Natalie Baszile, Beth Ann Fennelly, Tom Franklin, Craig Johnson, Jamie Mason, Laura Lane McNeal and Mark Pryor.
Larson is well-known in the literary world, having won an Edgar Award in nonfiction crime writing for his book “The Devil in the White City,” which stayed on the New York Times hardcover and paperback bestseller lists for more than five years.
Leonardo DiCaprio in 2010 bought the rights to make a movie out of the book and in August of this year formed an alliance to make the film, with Martin Scorsese directing, Billy Ray writing the screenplay and Paramount Studios backing the project.
“The Devil in the White City,” which also was a finalist for the National Book Award, is set at the Chicago World’s Fair in the 1890s. One plot line tells the story of Daniel Burnham, the architect who put the fair together, and a second one delves into H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who used the fair to lure women to his hotel to kill them.
What makes Larson unusual is his ability to take true stories and write them in a compelling narrative fashion that makes readers feel like they are reading fiction, said Amanda Borden, an assistant director at the library who serves as chairwoman for the Southern Voices Festival.
“He’s really good at building tension,” Borden said.
Another one of Larson’s bestsellers, “Thunderstruck,” chronicles the connection between Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the first effective system of radio communication, with Hawley Harvey Crippen, England’s second most famous murderer.
A third one, “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin,” had movie rights optioned by Universal Studios and Tom Hanks’ Playtone Entertainment.
“When I have told people that Erik Larson is coming, it’s like they start to salivate,” Borden said. “We’re just really fortunate to be getting him … I expect it to be one of our quickest sellouts.”
Speakers coming to the Saturday authors conference are quite diverse, Borden said.
Jamie Mason and Mark Pryor both are known for their psychological fiction thrillers.
Mason, who lives in the mountains of western North Carolina, has written two novels, including “Three Graves Full” and, more recently, “Monday’s Lie.”
Pryor, an author who also works as an assistant district attorney in Texas, has written five Hugo Marston mysteries, which follow the U.S. embassy’s chief of security as he solves crimes on the streets of Paris. His most recent thriller, “Hollow Man,” is told from the viewpoint of a psychopath.
Both Mason and Pryor are very unpredictable writers, Borden said. “You really don’t know what’s happening til the end,” she said.
Fennelly and Franklin are married and both teach in the master of fine arts program at the University of Mississippi.
Fennelly has won multiple prizes for three books of poetry: “Tender Hooks,” “Unmentionables” and “Open House.”
Franklin, who has won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger Award, has been compared to William Faulkner. He has written five books, including “Hell at the Breach,” “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” and “The Tilted World,” which he co-authored with Fennelly.
It will be interesting to hear from them individually but also to hear about how they wrote their most recent book together, Borden said.
Baszile and McNeal both are new novelists, and both tackle race relations in their books, Borden said. Both novels are set in Louisiana but are told from different perspectives, she said.
Baszile’s book, “Queen Sugar,” tells the story of a strong-willed African-American widow and mother who inherits a sugar cane farm in Louisiana. The book is scheduled to be adapted for TV by Ava Duvernay for Oprah Wynfrey’s TV network.
McNeal’s book, “Dollbaby,” tells the story of a young white girl coming of age in New Orleans in the 1960s. It was chosen as a 2015 Book Award finalist by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance.
Baszile lives in San Francisco, and McNeal is a New Orleans native. The two likely will be paired together at the authors conference, Borden said.
The seventh author who will speak at the Saturday authors conference, Johnson, writes western mysteries. He is best known for his “Longmire” series of books, which serve as the basis for the A&E TV series of the same name.
“It’s a show that a lot of people are talking about,” Borden said. “I think it will be really, really cool to have him here.”
Johnson, who lives in Ucross, Wyoming. (population 25), won the Wyoming Historical Association’s Book of the Year award for “Death Without Company.” His book “Dark Horse” was named a Publisher’s Weekly best book of the year in 2008, and “Hell is Empty” was named Mystery of the Year by Library Journal.
Southern Voices, which will be in its 24th year next year, has not had a western writer in a long time, Borden said.
The featured musical artist for the 2016 Southern Voices Festival will be Kellylee Evans, an up-and-coming singer who mixes jazz, soul, pop and hip-hop. She is scheduled to perform Feb. 24-25 at 7:30 p.m. each night.
Over the past decade, Evans has toured the world, opening for stars such as John Legend, Dianne Reeves, Derek Trucks, George Benson and Willie Nelson. She released two independent solo albums of original songs in Canada and earned two June Award nominations, winning best jazz vocal album for “Nina,” her tribute to Nina Simone.
In 2014, she debuted in the United States with “I Remember When,” with which she put her own stamp on songs by hip-hop artists Eminem, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog, Kanye West and others. The album originally was recorded in Belgium and released in France, but the U.S. version has three new tracks.
The Southern Voices Festival always features a visual artist as well. This year, festival organizers chose a group of female rug hookers who call themselves the Heart of Dixie Rug Bee. The group of 17 women from Birmingham and the surrounding area have been meeting weekly together for 26 years to pursue their craft.
The group’s rugs have been featured in national exhibits, publications and rug hooking books. Southern Voices will include a free reception to honor the women on Feb. 23 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
But tickets must be purchased for other parts of the festival. Tickets for “An Evening with Erik Larson” cost $35, plus a $2.50 processing fee, with a limit of four tickets per person.
Tickets for the Saturday authors conference on Feb. 27 cost $40, plus a $2.50 processing fee per person, with a limit of six tickets per person. Tickets will be specific to the venue selected (the Hoover Library Theatre or the Library Plaza), but each author on Saturday will speak at both venues at different times.
Tickets to hear Larson and the other authors will be sold online and by phone only from 9 to 11 a.m. when they go on sale the first day (Jan. 8), but the Hoover Library Theatre box office will open for walk-up orders as well at 11 a.m., if there are any tickets left, Borden said.
Tickets to see Kellylee Evans in concert on Feb. 24 or 25 cost $25 and are already available for purchase on the Hoover Library Theatre website, by phone at 444-7888 or in person at the box office at 200 Municipal Drive in Hoover.
Tickets for the 2015 Southern Voices headline speaker, Wally Lamb, sold out, and all but about 20 to 30 tickets were sold for the Saturday authors conference in 2015, Borden said.