Ever wonder why so many writers cluster here in the mountains of Western North Carolina? Is it the creative atmosphere, the inspiring mountain beauty, the vortex? There are our native writers, raised on this rocky soil, then there are those who move here, drawn, perhaps, by all of the above.
One of my goals at last weekend’s North Carolina Writers’ Network conference was to learn why so many writers call our corner of the state home.
The NCWN fall conference is held in a different North Carolina city annually. This year, 226 writers crowded into The Hawthorne Inn in downtown Winston-Salem. The conference met in Asheville in 2005.
Here’s how a few of the conference’s luminaries with roots (and branches) in WNC answered my question about the prevalence of writers in our region:
“I think there are more great writers coming out of the North Carolina than any other state in the union. I could just read North Carolina writers all the time,” says Ron Rash, award-winning novelist and professor of Appalachian Studies at Western North Carolina.
Rash’s family has lived in the mountains since the mid-1700s, and he adds: “Writers from the Appalachians grow up in a story-telling tradition.”
Rash touted the influence of Asheville’s native son, Thomas Wolfe, on this area’s writers: “Having a writer so well-known from the area makes young people realize that is something we can do well in North Carolina. Wolfe opens up the possibilities for others to follow.”
The conference’s keynote speaker, Robert Morgan, thinks overemphasis on writing instead of storytelling is one problem with college writing programs in America. Morgan has used stories his grandfather told him as fodder for poems and short stories, only to later discover these “true” tales originated from Appalachian folklore, which, in turn, probably evolved from stories originally told in the British Isles.
Morgan grew up in Hendersonville, although he now spends most of his time teaching at Cornell University in upstate New York. Morgan’s mother lives in Hendersonville and he owns land there. He hopes to retire and build a house on his piece of Western North Carolina one day, he says, “if I can afford it.”
When I asked Morgan why so many writers hail from these mountains, he laughs.
“Cause there ain’t nothing else to do down here.”
He adds: “The serious answer is, in the case of Appalachian writers, we feel driven to capture the world that has all but disappeared. The Appalachian world that I grew up in has been all but erased.”
“We who are natives are very interested in capturing a vanished culture—the music, the language, the people, most importantly, the people,” Morgan says.
Morgan’s newly published biography of Daniel Boone, titled Boone, explores a time and place long gone, when this area and the land of Kentucky were frontier country.
Poet and writer Sebastian Matthews grew up all over the country, but now he makes his home in Asheville, teaching writing at Warren Wilson College and at the Great Smokies Writing Program at University of North Carolina-Asheville.
“Outsiders often see the Appalachians as backwards, so the need to speak up for itself is stronger — to move past the stereotypes,” Matthews says. “Mountain culture is special. There’s something in the soil here that raises good writers.”
Or, as in Matthews’ case, helps good writers grow.
Two recently published tomes that explore some of the great writing and writers of the region, both past and present, were in demand at the conference. They are the latest issue of Rivendell Literary Journal and a new guidebook called Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains.
Matthews edits the Rivendell Literary Journal. The current issue, “Native Genius,” consists of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and criticism, all courtesy of Western North Carolina writers. It’s basically a 400-page love letter to our region, including poetry from such notables such as Keith Flynn and Glenis Redmond to fiction from Peter Turchi and, well, Ron Rash.
Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains by Georgann Eubanks explores Western North Carolina through guided tours of writers’ stomping grounds and spots referenced in their works. Eubanks offers a breadth of connections, from the Sidney Lanier Garden behind Richmond Hill Inn to All Souls Episcopal Church where Gail Godwin’s mother attended services. This is the first of three regional volumes — the next two will guide readers through the Piedmont and Eastern parts of the state.
I left the conference realizing that I could just read WNC writers and be well-satisfied.
Anne Fitten Glenn is a freelance writer based in Asheville.