Writers honored at literary celebration

Published 1:04 am Sunday, February 28, 2010

NATCHEZ — Three writers were honored at the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration’s awards ceremony Saturday.

“Mississippi literary tradition is a marvel in the world of letters,” said David Sansing, chairman of the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Committee. “Mississippi has one of the highest rates of illiteracy in the United States, yet we have more Pulitzer Prize winners per acre than any other state in the union.”

Because of that, the Richard Wright Literary excellence committee decided to award two literary excellence awards instead of just one, one for fiction and one for non-fiction, Sansing said.

Presenter John Guice said that the work of the first recipient, Robert McElvaine, covered a wide range of scholarship and interdisciplinary study, from the great depression to modern liberalism and sociology.

McElvaine accepted the non-fiction award thanking his parents, noting that it was their stories about the Great Depression that probably caused his interest in the period.

He also thanked his wife and children.

“They grew up with me writing,” he said. “Literally, they would be in my study wile I was writing, and I would be doing something with them, writing off and on.”

When presenting novelist Steve Yarbrough with the Wright award for fiction, Guice said that it doesn’t take much looking around to see that his work is critically acclaimed.

Being a novelist has its hazards, and Yarbrough said reaction to his latest novel was no different.

“My father quit speaking to me, my daughter burst into tears while reading it on a flight to Frankfurt and had to go to the bathroom and had to be taken out by a flight attendant and my other daughter left me a message saying she thought I was really brutal in the writing of the novel,” he said.

He’s heard of people from his hometown who said they would take up chewing tobacco just so they could spit on him, and others who want his books banned, Yarbrough said.

But that’s nothing compared to what Richard Wright went through, he said.

“For me, living at this point in time when there are no constraints on what I can say or how I can say it, it boggles the mind what kind of pressures there were on Richard Wright when he wrote what he wrote,” Yarbrough said.

“To tell us what he told us about the life he observed when he was growing up, I can’t imagine the amount of courage and fortitude it must have taken him. To have my name linked with that mans’ is an honor I will cherish the rest of my life.”

The recipient of the NLCC’s Horton Foote Award for Special Achievement in Screenwriting — Robert Harling — wrote his first play, “Steel Magnolias,” in 10 days without any previous experience, presenter Gerald McRaney said.

Harling said that, in receiving the award, he wasn’t able to use the word “humbled.”

“I have to use the word ‘unworthy,’ as I stand under the shadow of this writer who has been such an influence on America for generations,” he said.

The secret to writing southern humor is to simply write about what you know, and Harling said that he didn’t realize that “Steel Magnolias” would be received as a comedy until it was produced for the stage.

“People want to ask about Southern humor, but all I know is that everyone I know is crazy,” he said. “But that’s normal, the way all the women and all the men speak in bumper stickers. They try to top one another with one line jokes, and it’s not simple humor, it’s complex, and it’s what I know.”

Regional festivals like NLCC are important because they help people of a certain region to appreciate the contributions of their own people to the arts, McRaney said.

“They can see it, and they say, ‘He is one of us, so that makes all of us special,’” he said.

McRaney, who first became involved with the NLCC after filming three episodes of the show “Promised Land” in the Natchez area and who originated the Horton Foote award, said the NLCC could expand its cinema portion by finding a theater that can screen films that are made locally and regionally.

A small film festival could eventually attract more filmmakers to come to an area, McRaney said.

And while Mississippi has turned out a number of prolific writers already, McRaney said a visit he took to the Mississippi School of the Arts is encouraging for the future.

“Talk to some of these kids, and there is going to be some tremendous things from these kids,” he said.

He would also like to partner with a regional school to encourage the local production of films, McRaney said.

“It would be interesting to see somebody who doesn’t know the rules of making movies to start making movies,” he said.

The NLCC will conclude today at Copiah-Lincoln Community College’s Natchez campus with two sessions.

The first session, “Capturing the News in Cartoons” with political cartoonist Marshall Ransey, will be from 8:30-10:30 a.m., and the second session, “How NOT to Make a Documentary Film!,” with Scott Dixon McDowell, will be from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.