U.S. Representative Martha Roby (R-AL) delivered the following speech on March 1 in Montgomery, Alabama, where she presented the 2018 SELTI Tourism Fiction Award to author Jeanie Parnell. Jeanie’s tourism short story “Tunnel Vision,” which featured many Civil Rights attractions in Montgomery, won the 2018 SELTI Writing Contest. The award also came with a $500 prize from the Alabama Tourism Department.
Thank you all for being here today, and thank you for inviting me to join you.
Economic development has always been a major focus of mine during my time representing Alabama’s Second District in Congress. I have typically focused on the traditional ways of keeping our economic vitality alive and moving forward: Things like attracting industries, retaining and expanding our military programs and installations, cutting regulations and red tape that weigh down small businesses, and making sure that federal programs match the needs of our vital agriculture interests.
But, sometimes, a new economic development tool comes along that deserves recognition for its impact, and today I’d like to talk about one such tool being used to promote our district, and that’s tourism fiction.
First, what is tourism fiction? The idea is both very simple and very effective: Authors write fictional stories set in real places, and at the end of the story, they invite their readers to visit those places.
We know that stories can have a substantial impact on tourism. One great example of this in action is Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Even decades after its publication, this piece of literary work continues to draw thousands of visitors to Monroeville each year.
So, the question is this: If we know tourism fiction works, then why not try and inspire writers in cities and states across the state and nation to harness this incredible power and channel it towards boosting the tourism industry in many different places? After all, every city, big and small, has a unique story to tell.
What would happen if we started to inspire authors to write about real places? What if we could direct their focus on our best attractions and open the door to individuals’ creativity while promoting our cities?
That is exactly what the Southeastern Literary Tourism Initiative does: It challenges writers to create stories that would attract visitors to certain cities and areas. SELTI has been conducting tourism short story contests for several years through funding from the Alabama Tourism Department and other sources. The most recent writing contest featured Montgomery, which is what brings me here today.
Montgomery is my hometown, and I am proud of the many places and historical figures we have that provide inspiration for stories. We’ve had Hank Williams here, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and the Wright Brothers, just to name a few.
Without a doubt, one of the major stories about the City of Montgomery is our story of change, of social progress. I bet the residents of Montgomery in 1954 would hardly recognize our city today, not just because of the new buildings and development, but by the way people treat one another.
The winning story of the 2018 SELTI contest, titled “Tunnel Vision,” was written by my dear friend Jeanie Parnell. Her story captured this spirit of social change in an impactful way that could only happen in fiction: The story told of a 1954 Montgomery woman who magically stepped into the Montgomery of 2018 and witnessed firsthand the change that had taken place over more than 60 years.
Of course, the characters in the story are fictional, but they represent the many real people who faced the challenges of that era. These people fought for change for many years, and today, Montgomery residents and tourists alike can come to a place like this, the Civil Rights Memorial, to honor those in the past whose sacrifices have helped build a better future for the generations that followed them.
A travel guide or brochure can’t reach potential tourists on the level that a story like Jeanie’s can. Her story captured the spirit of Montgomery, and her characters touched my heart, and evidently, the hearts of the contest judges, too.
“Tunnel Vision” isn’t Jeanie’s first published work, either. Her debut novel, titled Fairhope, was a second-prize winner of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award a few years ago. In addition to writing, Jeanie currently teaches English Composition at Auburn Montgomery and Troy University.
We need more writers, like Jeanie, promoting our state through their works of fiction, and I challenge others to read her story and consider how they might create one of their own to attract readers to other areas in Alabama.
In closing, Jeanie, thank you for asking me to be here today. You are immensely talented, and I am proud to present you with the 2018 SELTI Tourism Fiction Award. Congratulations on this outstanding achievement. You are a fantastic ambassador for our city and state, and I’m thankful to call you a friend.
Please give Jeanie a round of applause, and be sure to tell your friends and family to check out her story online at SELTI.org and spread the word.