“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller
Since moving to Charleston three years ago, I have whined to my friends back in Charlottesville about the lack of literary events and organizations down here. In C’Ville I was part of a wonderfully supportive organization for writers called WriterHouse. (Check out my previous post on this great place). C’Ville is rich with writers and lovers of the literary arts, with an annual book festival, Virginia Festival of the Book, loads of literary residents, and a great indie bookstore. Maybe it’s because of UVA’s renowned MFA program, maybe it’s something in the water. Who knows? But I was definitely spoiled.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Charleston. And I have a terrific writing group. But what I missed was what I had taken for granted for so long: opportunities to listen to and meet writers like Rita Dove and Carolyn Parkhurst and Maya Angelou (yes, I heard Ms. Angelou read, watched her mesmerize a room of thousands with her words, her presence, and that amazing voice), opportunities to take classes from talented MFA grads and published writers any time I wanted, and opportunities to attend writing festivals within driving distance in Richmond and DC.
The Spoleto Arts Festival is an incredible thing here. It is full of dance and music and theater, but where, I kept asking, were the literary arts? They have a poetry reading each year – Sandra Beasley, a DC native and friend of a mutual friend, read last year and she was terrific – but not really much else. Or at least as far as I knew. But this year, I just happened to be reading the Spoleto schedule when I discovered that they do, in fact, have a literary festival of sorts. It’s supported by the Charleston Library Society, and I’m not sure why it is not better known or publicized. I don’t know who they’ve had in the past, because as I said I didn’t even know it existed, but this year was the perfect year for me to discover it. Because two of my favorite authors read.
George Singleton, a SC native who lives not far from where I grew up, is a fabulous southern writer whose stories are about the guys I grew up with. In fact, when I read his stories, I feel like I’m sitting on his back deck drinking a beer and listening to him tell something he heard about somebody we both know. He has a new story collection, Between Wrecks, and you should check it out. It’s terrific. As a bonus, he’s just a nice, laid-back kind of guy. Now, I have to admit, we have a mutual friend, and at her suggestion, I emailed him when I moved to Charleston to introduce myself. He was nice as he could be, but I’m sure he was thinking, who the hell is this and what the hell does she want? Then, when I showed up at his reading, I introduced myself as the person who wrote him an email 3 years ago to introduce myself, and maybe he thought, oh shit, stalker. I don’t know. But he was charming and nice and we chatted about book tours and Anderson, SC and Wofford College, where he teaches, and then I got out of there before he got creeped out and went for a restraining order.
David Gilbert‘s literary landscape is far from SC. He is a New Yorker, and his book & Sons, which I listed as one of my favorites of 2013, is set in NY. It has gotten some incredible reviews and is one of those books that when you start it you think, he can’t do that, he’s breaking some serious rules here, but then he pulls it off and you want to know how. It really is a big, brave book. Mr. Gilbert read for about an hour and when it was over I practically tackled him to keep him from moving over to the wine and I said, you know, I loved this book, it was so amazing, but the Normals was one of my favorite books ever. And he looked at me like I was insane – the Normals didn’t get the love of the critics, and lots of people have never even heard of it – but I really did love it. Anyway, he shook my hand and said thank you and got away as quickly as possible, probably wondering if maybe I was a nutcase and he should get a restraining order.
So my opinion of the literary scene in Charleston has been restored somewhat. I just wish I could find more literary events before next year’s Spoleto. If anyone out there knows of readings in Chas, please comment or email me. I’ll try not to freak out the author.
I never thought I’d have to miss work down here because of snow and ice, but the Ravenel Bridge from Mt. Pleasant where I live into downtown Charleston where I work has been iced over and closed since last night. I spent a good part of the morning writing, waiting for the bridge to open back up (which it still hasn’t at almost 11:00pm). This snow day was a gift really, because I couldn’t come up with excuses to run errands, and since I’d cleaned my condo top to bottom yesterday, I couldn’t be distracted by dusty lampshades or dirty dishes. So I wrote. And it felt illicit and exciting and valuable because it was stolen time. As I wrote, I looked out of the window every now and then and thanked the weather gods for this gift of time. But as magical as it was, it sure didn’t make me miss Virginia winters.
By the way, it’s supposed to be 70 on Sunday. Now that’s my kind of winter weather.
2013 has been an amazing year for books. I’ve read so many incredible ones, and there are many I haven’t gotten to yet that I’ve heard are equally wonderful. There were a few I was disappointed in (sorry, Messud fans, but I hated The Woman Upstairs), but this was definitely a good year for readers of literary fiction.
I won’t try to compile a best of the year list here – there are plenty of those out there, put forth by respected publications and brilliant minds. (Check out this list of the Best Books of 2103 on Book Riot) As I always explain, this is instead a list of books I wish I had written. Books that say to me, “This is what you should write, this is the way you should tell your stories.” Books that speak in my language, to my soul.
But before my list, I do want to plug some of the books that I fell in love with, even if they are not the books I would write, even if I could.
- The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan. I think it’s her best book in years.
- Good Lord Bird, James McBride. Resisted reading this one, because it is in dialect, and I didn’t think I wanted to read about the subject. I’m so glad I gave in.
- Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel. Even better than Wolfe Hall. I love literary historical fiction when done well, and she is the best at it there is.
- Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem. I have to admit, it took me quite a while to get into this book, but by the end I was so so sad it was over.
- & Sons, David Gilbert. I loved The Normals, but this is nothing like that. It is bigger, and braver, and with strange twists and turns.
- The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht. The first book I read in 2013, it started off a year of magical reading.
Now, on to the books I wish I’d written. It is, of course, a much shorter list.
- Life After Life, Kate Atkinson. I have loved Kate Atkinson ever since I read Behind the Scenes at the Museum. But this book blew me away. It is brave, and creative, and thoughtful. It takes a big risk, and excels. And it is about something I am interested in in my own writing – how small things change the course of a life. My favorite book of the year.
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman. Wow, just wow. I want to be able to write magical, fantastical stories like that. It touches on another of my interests – childhood memories. It is simply amazing. Read it.
- The Tenth of December, George Saunders. All writers of short fiction should aspire to write a story like George Saunders. “Escape from Spiderhead” is one of my new favorite short stories. Brilliant.
There were so many other terrific books I read this year: Ten Thousand Saints, by Eleanor Henderson, Night Film by Marisha Pessl, and All That Is by James Salter, to name just a few. And I still have The Goldfinch, The Interestings, and Salvage the Bones in my TBR pile before the end of the year. So many books, never enough time to read them all. But what fun trying.