A guest blog from Blake Fontenay, author of The Politics of Barbecue

Today we celebrate the publication of The Politics of Barbecue, a “spoofy thriller” by Tennessee author Blake Fontenay. Set in Memphis, this novel moves past  landmarks such as Beale Street, Graceland, and Mud Island as an unlikely group of heroes gets a glimpse into the greed and corruption all too rampant in government. Already selected as an “Editor’s Pick from Book Expo America 2012” by Library Journal, this lighthearted romp sounds like a  perfect read for a turbulent election year, don’t you think?

Today, we’ll let Blake tell you, in his own words, exactly what inspired him to write this novel in the first place. Enjoy!

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Explaining why I wrote The Politics of Barbecue is about as easy as eating ribs without getting messy fingers. From as early as I can remember, I’ve loved reading and writing. That’s probably no huge shock, since my father was a newspaperman (I don’t think they were called journalists in those days) who also had published novels to his credit.

I don’t remember my dad ever pressuring me to follow in his footsteps. But he did read to my sister and me often when we were young—the Tolkien books, C. S. Lewis, anything he thought would be of interest. He also frequently took me to his workplace, the newsroom at The Tennessean in Nashville.

At that young age, working for a newspaper appealed to me more than becoming a novelist. There was something about the energy of a newsroom—finding out things before everyone else did, then telling the rest of the world—that struck a chord with me.

In elementary school, I started my own newspaper, The Cricket, which I was able to keep going with the support of neighbors and classmates. I’ll never forget the day I showed up at school without the fare money I needed to ride the city bus home, but with an armful of issues of The Cricket. I made enough sales to pay for my ride that day, which probably gave me a false sense of security about the financial future of newspapers.

Of course, I enjoyed writing creative stories at that age, too. And essays. Really, any type of writing presented a delicious challenge. Except for novels. I tried a couple of times, but getting from “Once upon a time” to “The End” just seemed too daunting. How could anyone possibly write something that long?

As I got older—and as I realized I had no future as a pro soccer player—the idea of becoming a newspaper reporter stuck with me. So I went out and did that. And I had a fun and exciting career. I got to cover nighttime launches from Cape Canaveral. Do first-person stories from the pits at NASCAR races. Experience the craziness of Daytona Beach’s Bike Week. And interview all sorts of people—regular folks, cops, lawyers, athletes, CEOs, politicians.

I gravitated toward beats that included the latter group, which eventually led to a job covering city hall for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee. When I took the job, I considered it no more than a way station in my journey of life. I thought I would spend one or two years there, then return to one of the newspapers in Florida and end my career there.

Then life happened. Before I knew it, I had spent a decade in Memphis, transitioning from my reporting job to one as an editorial writer and political columnist. I also fell in with a group that produced the Memphis Gridiron Show, an annual charity event in which local politicians and other public figures were satirized in song and skit. Pretty much by accident, I became the show’s head skit writer.

After 20-plus years of grinding out bylines, I finally decided I needed a new writing challenge. It was great to work on something a few hours, a few days, or even a few weeks and then see it in print. But I wanted something that took longer to create—and wasn’t just me parroting words other people had told me. I wanted to spin the kind of story my father had read to me when I was young. And if I’m totally honest, I wanted to do something that would make him proud as he was entering the final years of his life.

The inspiration for The Politics of Barbecue came from several sources. As a reader, I enjoy stories that have a strong sense of place. And Memphis has as great a sense of place as any town I’ve ever seen. It’s a gritty city with its share of crime, blight, and urban problems. But it also has a wonderful culture of food, music, history, and Southern hospitality. So part of my motivation was to tell outsiders about the Memphis they didn’t know.

Many people know something about Memphis’s reputation for great barbecue, but they really don’t understand the depths of passion many Memphians have for grilled meat. I remember a cookout I attended one Saturday during football season. The host and another guest got into a shouting match over whether or not it was okay to open the smoker door long enough to check on how the ribs were doing. Competitors in the city’s barbecue cooking contests are even more intense.

A story based on plans for a Barbecue Hall of Fame seemed like a natural fit. After all, Memphis has an ornamental metal museum, but not one dedicated to its signature food? And the cynical journalist in me said that no project like that could be built in Memphis—or probably anywhere else—without its fair share of political corruption.

I hope that The Politics of Barbecue both informs and entertains. It has serious themes dealing with corruption, urban problems, and the importance of civic engagement. But it’s also a story I hope will keep readers laughing and turning the pages.

Because it’s a story that reaffirms how messy life can be. Just like good barbecue.

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Like what you’ve read? Blake will promote his new book while on tour across parts of Tennessee and Mississippi–check his events to see if he’ll be signing near you. Be sure to like Blake on Facebook as well.

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Blair Publisher is at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville

The Blair team is in Nashville this weekend for the Southern Festival of Books. Angela and Margaret will be at the booth all weekend, so stop by and say hi! Then mosey on over to our author events:

Dot Moore, author of No Remorse: The Rise and Fall of the Killer John Wallace (NewSouth Books), will appear in room 29, Legislative Plaza, today from 3:30pm – 4:30pm.

Christopher Coleman, author of Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, will be on the Chapter 16 stage tomorrow, Oct. 15, from 1 to 2 p.m. You might have seen him on WTVF’s Talk of the Town yesterday.

Distributed author Edith Pearlman (Lookout Books) will appear with Ann Patchett at the War Memorial Auditorium Saturday, October 15, from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Her latest collection of stories, Binocular Vision, was just announced as a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. Edith Pearlman and Ann Patchett--Southern Festival appearance

Country music manager Stuart Dill, author of Murder on Music Row, will be sharing the stage with mystery writer Carson Morton in room 16 of Legislative Plaza Sunday, October 16, from 2 to 3 p.m., to discuss “Monday, Power, and Fame.”

Stuart Dill--Southern Festival appearance

Roger Reid, author of Longleaf (NewSouth Books), will appear on a panel Saturday, 4:30-5:30 pm, in the Old Supreme Court Room. 

And of course, I couldn’t resist posting a photo of Angela and Margaret at the booth. If you swing by, mention this post, and these ladies might have a surprise in store for you. ;)

It looks like it’s going to be a great weekend in Nashville! Will we see you at Southern Festival?

Nashville celebrates release of Stuart Dill’s MURDER ON MUSIC ROW

Last week, Stuart Dill celebrated the release of his debut mystery novel, Murder on Music Row: A Music Industry Thriller, at ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) in Nashville, Tenn., where anyone who’s anybody in the Nashville music scene celebrates his or her launch. Angela Harwood, Blair’s VP of Sales and Marketing, attended the event. Below is an excerpt of the post she wrote for Teresa Rolfe Kravtin, one of our sales reps. See the full post (and lots more photos) at Teresa’s blog.

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Stuart shared his launch event with his close friends and family in an atmosphere he knows best, although he’s usually attending parties at ASCAP in support of one of his many clients (Billy Ray Cyrus, say, or Jo Dee Messina), many of whose names are sprinkled throughout his novel. More than 200 people turned out in support of Stuart, and to my delight (I do work for the publisher, after all), most of them bought books!

The first thing guests noticed upon entering the party was the absolutely gorgeous miniature cupcake display, provided by Ivey Cake — the bakery that made the wedding cake for American Idol winner and country music superstar Carrie Underwood. Ivey’s delicious cupcakes were decorated in the same color scheme as the cover of Stuart’s book!

Guests mingled, ate cupcakes (the cupcake I chose was peanut butter and sported edible glitter), and sipped on coffee from Humphrey Street Coffee Co., while listening to background music played by Ryan Joseph, Charles Kelley, and Randy, who play with Laura Bell Bundy, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Craig Morgan.

At 5:30, Tim DuBois introduced Stuart Dill. Tim DuBois is managing executive at ASCAP and a major figure on Music Row. Tim discovered artists such as Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson, and Brad Paisley, and co-wrote “When I Call Your Name” with Vince Gill. Tim was followed by Laura Bell Bundy, star of Legally Blonde: The Musical, who told us about when she found out Stuart was a writer. She never knew!

Stuart spoke graciously about his friends and family and told a few humorous anecdotes before entering the adjoining conference room to sign books (this conference room just begs you to pretend you’re in an Austin Powers movie). Stuart tirelessly signed books for an hour and a half, while his guests continued to mingle (and buy books).

Among the guests seen at the party (the ones I recognized, anyway—everybody there looked like somebody, I just wouldn’t know who!) were Frye Gaillard, Stuart’s longtime friend who originally suggested Stuart send his manuscript to John F. Blair (thank you, Frye!) and Stephen Doster, the author of Lord Baltimore and Voices from St. Simon’s, both published by John F. Blair. Jan Fairchild of Southern Territory Associates posed for a photo with Stephen Doster and introduced me to Nancy Stewart, Blair’s buyer at Ingram, who has been doing a wonderful job juggling the inventory for Murder on Music Row as the book generates more and more publicity (Country Weekly, Library Journal, BookPage, MusicRow.com, CMT.com, and more). I also met Stuart’s longtime friend Brent Holmes, author of Island Tunes for Kids, who let me in on a little secret: Stuart has also written song lyrics! Shhhh.

It was nice to meet Stuart’s parents, Dr. Stephen Dill and Ruth Dill, who came all the way from Mobile, Alabama, to attend the launch party. They will also attend Stuart’s hometown signing at Page & Palette on Friday, October 21.

About halfway through the evening, a second wave of guests flowed in, and we found out that many of Stuart’s friends and acquaintances were unable to attend due to a neighborhood lockdown in Brentwood (a burglar was on the loose with a gun!). For those who missed the launch party, you can see Stuart Dill at Southern Festival, Sunday, October 16, or at the Cool Springs Barnes & Noble in Brentwood on Thursday, November 17. (For Stuart’s full event schedule, click here.)

The party hit just the right note, wrapping up, as planned, around 7 p.m. Blair sold around 100 books at the party, thanks to help from our summer intern, Morgan Hawk, and our current intern, Katie Saintsing—who came along in the spirit of Judd Nix, the 23-year-old unpaid intern at Elite Management, who finds himself witness to an assassination attempt in Murder on Music Row. (Interestingly, our interns are also unpaid—hmmm). I’d also like to give a shout out to Stuart’s intern, Laura Jo Blair, who was a great help directing guests to where they could buy books.

After the party, Katie and I joined Stuart and Maral for dinner at South Street in midtown, where we rehashed the night’s events and planned for more successful events in the future. For those who are interested in seeing what the fuss is all about, you can read an excerpt from Murder on Music Row. Books are available at your local bookstore, at online booksellers, including IndieBound.com, and at John F. Blair, Publisher. Ebook editions are also available.

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Thanks, Angela! Again, you can read the full post at Teresa’s blog. And don’t forget to follow Stuart on Facebook.

A sneak peek at Murder on Music Row by Stuart Dill

We’ve already teased you with photos of celebrities with the book (like this one of Billy Ray Cyrus) and rave reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, so today, we’re going to keep it simple. Enjoy this sneak peek at a chapter of Murder on Music Row, by Stuart Dill.

(And don’t forget to enter to win your free copy of Murder on Music Row! Check out this post to learn how to enter. Hurry, only one week left!)

Meet Christopher K. Coleman, author of Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee

Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee by Christopher K. Coleman

February might not be the scariest month, but Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, by Christopher K. Coleman, is sure to leave you spooked. Released today, you can get your fix of Tennessee’s famous (and not-so-famous) spirits and spooks with this collection of 28 stories, spanning from the mysterious mountains of Appalachia to the haunted banks of the Mississippi River. (You might remember this book from the sneak peek and excerpt we shared with you in October.)

Those familiar with Tennessee’s most famous apparitions will find new thrills in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. Readers may have heard of the Bell Witch, but what of her sister, a vengeful spirit known to the folks on the eastern part of the Highland Rim as the Buckner Witch?

What about the phantoms of the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville, a restless troupe of ghosts who perform for unwitting audiences?

And what about Hampton, the well-dressed butler of Oakslea Place in Jackson? He often greets visitors, but he’s been dead for years.

Of course, this collection wouldn’t be complete without a look at the spirits of legends like Elvis Presley and the ghosts of famous music sites like Opryland and Music Row.

Want to get your copy of the book and meet the author himself? Then you’re invited to his book launch in Franklin, Tenn., next Thursday, February 10, at 7 p.m. Chris will be signing copies of his book at Landmark Booksellers, Franklin’s haunted bookstore. We hope to see you there!

A sneak peek for ghost-story lovers

Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee by Christopher K. ColemanWe saved something special for our Halloween blog series today: a new book of ghost stories that we’re publishing in February of next year.

Christopher K. Coleman’s Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee is a new collection of 28 tales of the supernatural. This compilation explores never-before-published legends that span the entire state of Tennessee, from the mysterious mountains of Appalachia to the haunted banks of the Mississippi River.

Those familiar with the state’s most famous apparitions will find new thrills in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. Readers may have heard of the Bell Witch, but what of her sister, a vengeful spirit known to the folks on the eastern part of the Highland Rim as the Buckner Witch?

What about the phantoms of the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville, a restless troupe of ghosts who perform for unwitting audiences?

And what about Hampton, the well-dressed butler of Oakslea Place in Jackson? He often greets visitors, but he’s been dead for years.

Of course, this collection wouldn’t be complete without a look at the spirits of legends like Elvis Presley and the ghosts of famous music sites like Opryland and Music Row.

And lucky you–you don’t have to wait until February to read a story from this book. Enjoy a sneak preview right now, just in time for Halloween.

From all the Blair staff, have a happy, safe, and spooky Halloween!

The legendary balds of the Appalachian Trail

Yesterday we posted about Carolyn’s trips to the balds of Roan Mountain. This following is an excerpt from her book Touring the East Tennessee Backroads, second edition published in 2007. It explains some of the theories and legends behind what caused the “balds” in the Roan Mountain area. Big Hump and Hump mountains are peaks along the Appalachian Trail, near Roan Mountain, that feature balds.

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For centuries, the 6,285-foot “bald” peak called Roan Mountain has been an area landmark not only because of its height, but also because of the distinctive appearance of its treeless summit. Generations of scientists have tried to explain why certain mountaintops in the 2,000- to 6,000-foot range in this part of the Appalachians will not support trees. Altitude and timberline are obviously not the answer, since nearby Mount Mitchell, at almost 7,000 feet, supports tree growth all the way to the top.

In 1938, a professor from Louisiana State University advanced the theory that wasp eggs laid in the trees were responsible for killing them off. Unfortunately, his theory failed to explain why the infestation did not spread and why eradication of the wasps did not result in reforestation. A botanist from North Carolina State University suggested that Indians had created the balds by continually burning off the mountaintops for their settlements. But evidence from archaeologists and anthropologists showed that Indians pre­ferred valleys near streams and never chose the tops of ridges for their villages.

As usual, when science fails, legend enters. In 1898, James Mooney recorded in his report to the Bureau of American Ethnology that the Cherokees had a mythological explanation for the origin of the balds. A Cherokee village was terrorized by a giant yellow jacket called Ulagu that swooped down, snatched up children, and quickly flew off into the distance. The ever-resourceful Cherokees posted sentinels on the tops of the mountains in order to track Ulagu to its lair, located in an inaccessible cavern. The Cherokees prayed to the Great Spirit for aid. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning split off the side of the mountain where Ulagu hid. The Indians then quickly fell on the monstrous insect and destroyed it.

According to Mooney, the Great Spirit was so pleased with the Cherokees’ “initiative in uncovering [Ulagu’s] hiding place, their piety in appealing for Divine aid in their extremity, and their bravery in the final combat, that it was His decree that in the future the tops of the highest mountains be bare of timber, to better serve as stations for sentries should another visitation occur.”

The Catawba Indians, who also frequented the area, had a different explanation. In 1849, Charles Lanman recorded in Letters from the Alleghany Mountains,

There once was a time when all the nations of the earth were at war with the Catawbas, and had proclaimed their determination to conquer and possess their country. On hearing this intelligence the Catawbas became greatly enraged, and sent a challenge to all their enemies, and dared them to a fight on the summit of the Roan. The challenge was accepted, and three famous battles were fought. The streams of the entire land were red with blood, a number of tribes became extinct, and the Catawbas carried the day. Whereupon it was that the Great Spirit caused the forests to wither from the three peaks of the Roan Mountain where the battles were fought, and wherefore it is that the flowers which grow upon this mountain are chiefly of a crimson hue, for they are nourished by the blood of the slain.

The Catawba legend is particularly accommodating because it accounts for another characteristic that helps to draw thousands of visitors to Roan Mountain each year. On the top of the Roan, there are six hundred acres of natural rhododendron gardens that put on a brilliant display of color each June.

In 1799, Scotsman John Fraser, under the patronage of the Russian govern­ment, made his third trip to the North Carolina-Tennessee mountains. It was during his journey up the Roan that he discovered a new plant, which he designated Rhododendron catawbiense. It is this plant, with its crimson-colored blooms, that attracts so many sightseers.

Roan Mountain also boasts an 850-acre forest of Fraser fir and spruce. The Fraser fir, named after the same John Fraser who christened the Catawba rhododendron, has become the rage in the domestic Christmas-tree industry, spawning a whole new source of income for local landowners.