Song of the South 

Oxford American founder Marc Smirnoff to talk all things Southern at the Savannah Book Festival

San Francisco Bay native Marc Smirnoff became a Southerner by accident in 1989, after his car broke down in Mississippi. He took a job in an Oxford book store and became fascinated by – and hooked on – the great Southern writers. And he never went back home.

Three years into his Deep South residency, he founded the Oxford American.

Published quarterly, the Oxford American is a compendium of writing (and art, and photography) by Southerners, about Southerners, and about the Southern experience.

Smirnoff will be at the Savannah Book Festival Saturday, ostensibly to promote the 2008 collection The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing, which includes essays by Robert Palmer, Jerry Wexler, Nick Tosches and Elizabeth Wurtzel, among others.

He’ll also talk about the Oxford American, which has – despite its impressive roster of marquee names and supply of top–drawer content – has gone belly–up on more than one occasion, only to rise, phoenix–like, from the literary grave.

On the magazine’s bumpy legacy:

“In one way, it just seems to me to be part of our story. Certainly I wish I could focus on editorial matters solely. But this magazine has died three or four times, and it keeps coming back. So yes, the financial troubles may tell us something about the Oxford American, but maybe so do the returns. I just believe that if something is worth fighting for, you hold onto that pledge through the good times and the bad times And frankly, when we get the honor of publishing some of the writing from the South, it makes up for all the turmoil. What the hell’s a little turmoil?”

On the importance of music in Southern culture:

“I’ll take pains to remind people that these American cultural genres – jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country – came from the South. You could even argue for R&B and soul and others. But these art forms are not just for Southerners; people all over the world are affected deeply by the music that was born in the South. So when it finally occurred to us that we should plunge into southern music, it seemed like we should have done it from Day One.”

On the pride of accomplishment:

“I feel that way when we’re working on it. When the issue comes out, I sort of disengage. Maybe that’s a psychological necessity on my part. To me, once we put it out there’s no more we can do. Flaws and all. But this reminds me of how Peter Guralnick described Jerry Lee Lewis – he called him ‘Imperfect Perfection.’ Or it might have been ‘Perfect Imperfection.’ I don’t mind the flaws and the imperfections – well, I wish the magazine were perfect – as long as we’re trying to be honest and insightful, are we’re alive.”

New and beautiful things in this writing:

“I actually still feel cultural shock every day, and it amazes me. I still feel like an outsider in the region. And I think that’s sort of healthy for my position. I’ve heard people say ‘Why do you think we need some Californian coming over here telling us how Southern everything is?’ Obviously, I don’t write everything – I don’t write practically any of it. All I’m doing ... maybe an outsider’s eyes are a little bit fresher. A little more dazzled by some of the things natives take for granted. To me, it’s still a totally fresh experience. There’s no way a magazine running 24/7 could convey the endless complexities in stories in the South. We’ve never even tried to do that, because we acknowledge that it’s impossible.”

Savannah Book Festival

Festival Day: Saturday, Feb. 19 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. in Telfair Square

Marc Smirnoff speaks at 3:30 p.m. in the Jepson–Nieses Auditorium

Admission: Free

Info: savannahbookfestival.org



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About The Author

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.

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