Soul Sessions Podcast: Ellen Daniels
On this episode, Ellen Rodgers Daniels is the Executive Director of the Mississippi Book Festival, happening August 20.
The festival, launched in August 2015 on the State Capitol grounds, continues to draw thousands to Mississippi's annual literary lawn party. The event is sponsored in part by Visit Jackson.
Ellen talks with Soul Sessions host Paul Wolf in today's episode.
IN THIS EPISODE:
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Paul: This is Soul Sessions, conversations on culture from Jackson, Mississippi. I'm your host, Paul Wolf, bringing you a look at the people, the places, and the events that make us the City With Soul. On today's show, Ellen Rodgers Daniels is the Executive Director of the Mississippi Book Festival, happening August 20. The festival, launched in August 2015 on the State Capitol grounds, continues to draw thousands to Mississippi's annual literary lawn party.
Paul: Ellen, welcome to Soul Sessions.
Ellen: Thank you, Paul. Thank you for having me.
Paul: You're a very busy lady these days. It's a busy month for you with the Mississippi Book Festival, highly anticipated ... the return, I should say of the Book Festival. But I had someone ask the other day, they didn't cancel last year; they just did it differently, right?
Ellen: That's correct. We didn't have it in the way we planned for a year, but we switched gears really quickly and we recorded 37 of the panels that we had planned out of the 48, virtually. And so we were really grateful to be able to do that and to give our festival goers a large taste of what they were expecting to see in person at the festival.
Paul: What a testament too, to the authors and the panelists that you had booked, that they would all participate virtually and help to make it a huge online success.
Ellen: It really was really heartening because, of course, it was crushing for us to have to cancel the in-person event 10 days out. Everyone understood, and we just moved to the virtual sphere. And some people that didn't want to participate virtually, they were like, ‘Hey, I don't want to do it virtually, but I would love to come in-person for 2022. ‘And so we have done just that.
Paul: Over 170 authors?
Paul: Wow! So you really have a huge lineup coming to the grounds of the Mississippi State Capitol, and Galloway Church as well. What will festival goers find when they come to the Mississippi Book Festival?
Ellen: Well, when they walk up onto the festival site, they will see so many tents, lots of children's activities on the Capitol lawn, 14 different book sellers, 102 self-published authors on Author's Alley. And then we have our community lawn, which is nonprofit organizations. So many food trucks, food tents, live music. And then inside in the air conditioning, we have 47 panels happening in, like you said, in the Capitol building and in Galloway United Methodist Church. So there is something for everyone. Free entertainment for people's children. So keep that in mind.
Ellen: We will have, as far as children's activities… this will be the first year that First Book has come to the Book Festival and they're going to have a large book giveaway tent. And there's going to be a set number of books that you can take for free, but I mean, who doesn't love free books? And it's children's books. So I'm sure that you've heard of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, which is an incredible thing. First Book is how Dolly Parton is able to do the Imagination Library. So we are so excited that the Barksdale Reading Institute has brought First Book to the Book Festival this year.
Ellen: And then we have Rocky's House from the Mississippi Children's Museum and the Barksdale Reading Institute. Rocky's House is actually going to be on the ground, and so children will be able to interact with that. It's going to be a lot of fun. Then we will have the MPB Kids Club on the bottom floor of the State Capitol. MPB has so many wonderful educational shows. They will be doing activities. People will be able to meet Molly of Denali and Ed Said, which are two characters from MPB programming. So it's going to be a lot of fun, especially for the kids. But then we've got things for adults as well.
Paul: Yeah. It seems like a big focus for kids, but adult-wise, who are some of your rock star authors that are coming in this year?
Ellen: Authors are my rock stars, as you said. I mean, if I can say this, I think we have a really incredible lineup and a really great way to bring the festival back in-person. We've got Alice Walker, with “The Color Purple.” 40 years ago that book was published, and she is coming to the festival. Alice Walker actually lived in Jackson in the 60s, And so we are really excited to welcome her back here. We have Jennifer Egan, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winner, and the Eudora Welty Foundation is bringing her here for festival goers.
Ellen: We've got Lauren Groff who is ... Lauren Groff rocketed onto the scene, I guess probably about 13 years ago. And everything that she has written since then has been just a huge success. And the Crooks Foundation is bringing her here. We have Michael Twitty, a James Beard Award-winning food writer. He won the James Beard Award for the cooking gene. He is coming for “Kosher Soul,” which will be released in August. We could sit here for hours and talk about all of the incredible people who are coming.
Paul: It's a fantastic lineup. It's August 20 on the grounds at the State Capitol and at Galloway United Methodist Church. Now Ellen, why a book festival? The answer may be obvious to those of us who have lived in Mississippi and know that rich literary tradition and culture, but why a book festival and why do you think it's so successful?
Ellen: Mississippi does have such a rich literary tradition. Some of the most famous authors in the English language were born right here in Mississippi. We've got William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, and that list could go on and on. But then we also have some of the most famous working authors, still alive, living right here in Mississippi. We've got Jasmine Ward, we've got Angie Thomas, we've got Kiese Laymon, and they all love this Book Festival. And that is incredibly heartening to all of us that work on this Book Festival, that they're willing to dedicate their time and come and make ... inspire their community in their home state.
Paul: Make it a weekend in Jackson, Mississippi for the Mississippi Book Festival. Ellen, if folks are coming into town or maybe they live here and want to enjoy the sites and the sounds and the tastes of our capital city, where are some places you might recommend for them to check out?
Ellen:As far as the sites, the cultural experiences that this city has to offer, there's the Mississippi Museum of Art, which is world class. The Two Mississippi Museums, the Mississippi History Museum and the Civil Rights Museum, truly top notch. And as for food, that's something that we do particularly well here in the south. Some of my favorites, I love Hal & Mal's. That comeback sauce is unparalleled. If it were okay to drink it with a straw, I probably would.
Ellen: I'm a Southern girl and I like soul food, and Bully's Restaurant, it's the place I take myself for my birthday every single year. I love Bully's Restaurant. And then we have a ton of great Mediterranean food in this city. Aplos, Aladdin. I mean, I think my family eats out at Aladdin, probably three nights a week. My two-year-old loves their hummus, which is the best hummus I've ever had in my life.
Paul: Pretty fantastic. It makes Jackson a special place, to have such a huge culinary landscape, and cultural landscape too. But I want to know for you, Ellen, what makes Jackson such a special place for you?
Ellen: Lemuria Bookstore. I moved to Jackson 16 years ago, and I started working in Lemuria Bookstore. And I say that Lemuria is my church. There is not a week that goes by that I do not enter those doors at least once. I mean, of course there are so many things that are special to me about Jackson. I was not born in Jackson, but I feel a real sense of community about Jackson. I love the people, I love the taste, the cultural institutions, but Lemuria Bookstore is just so near and dear to my heart.
Ellen: I just, when we would come to Jackson when I was a small child, we had to go by Lemuria every single time. So I grew up going to that store and it is a staple of nearly my every single day life. So I just love it. And I love everyone who works in there. John Evans, who owns Lemuria, is one of the most special people to me in the entire world. And there is no one that loves Jackson like that man.
Paul: Well, a special labor of love for you, as the Executive Director of the Mississippi Book Festival. It's August 20, it's in downtown Jackson. Ellen Rodgers Daniels, thanks so much for being here today.
Ellen: Thank you so much for having me, Paul. I really appreciate it.
Paul: Soul Sessions is a production of Visit Jackson. Our executive producers are Jonathan Pettus and Rickey Thigpen. To learn more about our organization and mission, head to visitjackson.com. I'm Paul Wolf, and you've been listening to Soul Sessions.