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.