Since it opened in 1983 under the guidance of founder and director Linda Andrews, the HPL has strived to become a gathering place for lovers of books, music and visual art. The HPL hosts art exhibits and a performing arts series—held in the small, amphitheater-style Library Theatre—that features such nationally known performers as Shelby Lynne, Kathy Mattea and Matt Dusk.
Perhaps the centerpiece of the library’s efforts to increase Hoover’s cultural importance is its annual Southern Voices literary conference, which began in 1993. “Southern Voices 2010: Window on the World” will take place at the library this weekend, Feb. 18-21, and will feature, as always, numerous literary stars.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, whose books have broken poetry sales records, will offer the opening night address and attend a reception and book signing on Friday, Feb. 19, at 7 p.m.
Participants in the main author conference scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 20, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m., will include Birmingham native Diane McWhorter, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for her book Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, and Ridley Pearson, best-selling author of 25 crime novels. Pearson and McWhorter are scheduled to deliver the conference’s keynote and closing addresses, respectively.
Other featured writers will include Alabama native Rheta Grimsley Johnson, award-winning author and journalist; Masha Hamilton, novelist and veteran foreign correspondent; and Marc Fitten, novelist and editor of The Chattahoochee Review.
Southern Voices will also include performances by popular singer-songwriter Ruthie Foster on Feb. 20 and Feb. 21 and the opening of an exhibit by mixed-media artist Toby Klein.
Before you get too excited, you should know that the entire event is sold out. “Billy Collins was sold out in a few hours, and the conference in a few days,” according to library assistant director Amanda Bonner, who has served as Southern Voices chairperson for three years. However, Southern Voices still merits attention, given its cultural importance to the burgeoning suburb it calls home.
“Southern Voices has enhanced the heart of Hoover,” Andrews says. “We are progressive in many ways. We have retail and lots of sports and recreation, but [the library] rounds out and enhances the other part of Hoover, the arts.”
Andrews praises the city of Hoover for the support it has given Southern Voices. “The mayor and council come to these events and support them financially,” she says. “That enables us to offer the conference at prices people can afford. For a suburb to support the arts as Hoover does is remarkable.”
And ticket buyers have responded. “The majority of audience is local, but we have people from all over the Southeast,” Andrews says. “When people love an author, they will drive or fly. I think we’ve made a name for Hoover this way.”
Southern Voices is also becoming well known among writers. "It’s a jewel in the crown for Hoover,” Bonner says. “People in the literary community know about it and want to come for the conference.” The big names at Southern Voices have included mystery writer Carl Hiaasen, essayist Roger Rosenblatt and the late Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirist Frank McCourt.
McCourt, Rosenblatt and Collins agreed to come at least in part because of their friendship with Andrews’s brother Robert Reeves, director of the Southampton Writers Conference in Southampton, N.Y. “He is friends with all these folks and gets them excited about coming to Alabama,” Andrews says.
The lit stars who make the journey get first-class treatment during their stay in Hoover, according to Andrews. “We take care of them,” she says. “We put them in the Wynfrey. We treat them like rock stars, because they are to us.”
However, the real emphasis at Southern Voices is on the book lovers who buy the tickets. It is not, according to Bonner, a place for writers merely to talk shop, but a small, intimate event where the authors sign books and mingle with attendees. “We are a conference that appeals to readers, not writers,” she says. “And it’s a place for readers to connect with writers. You might come to see Ridley [Pearson] but decide you want to read Marc Fitten.”
It’s too late to get tickets for this year’s event, but Southern Voices 2011 is scheduled for Feb. 17-20, with tickets going on sale the first week of January. To learn more Southern Voices and other HPL events, call (205) 444-7800 or visit www.hooverlibrary.org. The site includes video of readings by earlier conference participants, such as Hiassen and Daniel Wallace.