The Literary Scene in Chas is Alive and Well… or at Least OK

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

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

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.

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A Book Lover’s Thanks

I have so many things in my life to be thankful for:  beautiful, intelligent daughters, a supportive and loving family, good friends, a magical city to call home.  As a reader and writer, I also have much to remember on this day of Thanksgiving.  And since this blog is (mostly) dedicated to bookish things, I want to give thanks here for:

  1. All the amazing writers out there who sweat over each paragraph, each sentence, each word to create worlds I become lost in and characters I fall in love with.
  2. All my bookish friends, both readers and writers, those smart, interesting souls who love good stories and encourage me to try to write them.
  3. My writing group, who shares amazing work with me weekly and pushes me to share mine.
  4. My Nook.  Yes, Ali and Lauri, you were right – it changed my life.  No more carrying 10 books in my suitcase every time I travel.
  5. Twitter.  Yep, Twitter.  Because it’s there I often learn about new books that end up becoming favorites.

Mostly, I am thankful that when I was growing up my mother and other adults encouraged my love of books.  Reading has been a blessing in my life since I was barely able to sound out the words, and my life has been richer because of it.

Life as a Canvas

When I write, I often develop extremely detailed histories for my characters.  I’ve always wanted to understand what makes people act and react the ways that they do, what in their past forms who they are, and my characters are no different.  So I create complicated lives for them and their families, and along the way I also acquire compassion for even the most unlikable characters.  I begin to feel empathy for them.

This exercise is nothing new for me.  I’ve always liked to sit in restaurants and make up convoluted stories about the people dining around me.  I do it for fellow airline passengers.  I do it for people I’ve never met, and for those I have met but just can’t seem to get a handle on.  It’s pretty lame as hobbies go, but most hobbies writers have are pretty lame in comparison to alligator wrestlers and sky divers and bullfighters.  We tend to play in our heads. (With the exception of Ernest Hemingway, of course.)

I decided to try out this little exercise on myself, treating Christy Strick as an undiscovered character.  Of course most of it is my history, known to me, but then I began to take known facts and turn them upside down.  I invented a new father, one who would not run away from the responsibilities of a family with four children under the age of 8.  One who loved me from afar though he couldn’t claim me.  (This little fantasy  would surely make my mother crazy.)

Most of my family contributed without me having to embellish, of course.  My mother, who taught me sacrifice and told me that I was special (which I still believe to this day, despite evidence to the contrary.) My maternal grandfather, whom I have mentioned before, who passed along to me his passion for learning, a lifelong curiosity, and a craving for travel as we read his National Geographics and World Book Encyclopedias cover to cover.  My paternal grandfather showed me what it is to be a courtly gentleman, a man’s man who smoked pipes and played golf and drank cocktails every evening.  And did it looking like an aging movie star.    My paternal grandmother who passed on to me a love of art, and beauty in nature, and the importance of good manners.  My maternal grandmother, who taught me about duty, and hard work, and determination as she slaved in a blue jean factory to make ends meet. And my great grandfather Bob, who lived to be 99, showed me the dignity that could be found in aging gracefully.  My aunts, Marie and Jerry and Carol, who always believed I was special and let me know it.  And lastly, my daughters, who are smart and funny and teach me things about myself every day.

Of course these are the good things.  I also learned from some of the people in my life to be wary, to not open up or trust too easily.

I think of life as a great big canvas, with people who touch our lives adding paint here and there, layer upon layer of interactions that change the picture constantly, sometimes with just one encounter, one stoke of the brush.  Each death, each love affair, each supportive teacher or mean girl, they all add color and depth to the canvas.  The only question is whether at the end of that life, the canvas will hold more yellow and blues and greens or more reds and black.

I’m thinking about painting a canvas about the character’s life I am working on right now, a sort of abstraction of life.  Maybe it will be the cover of this novel.  Maybe no one will ever see it but me.  But I’m visual, and I like the idea of making art out of a life.  Which is what we do as writers every day on paper.  The canvas is just my extension of that.