Festival aims to boost Appalachian literature and literacy

WRITERS GATHER: Along with her husband, writer Trent Thompson, novelist Amy Greene organized the Laughing Heart Literary Festival. The inaugural event spotlights Appalachian authors and gives students an opportunity to meet one-on-one with Greene.
WRITERS GATHER: Along with her husband, writer Trent Thompson, novelist Amy Greene organized the Laughing Heart Literary Festival. The inaugural event spotlights Appalachian authors and gives students an opportunity to meet one-on-one with Greene. Photo courtesy of the author

Before they were married in 2016, New York Times best-selling novelist Amy Greene and her now-husband, Trent Thompson, a writer, scholar and the founder of the Rivendell Writers Colony in Tennessee, had talked about setting up a literary festival to celebrate the writers and readers of Appalachia.

“We had been looking for a year for a place … where we felt we could hold a literary festival of some sort,” Thompson says, “and nothing made sense to us until we bumped into Hot Springs.” On their honeymoon, the two rambled off the Appalachian Trail and onto the grounds of the Laughing Heart Lodge in Hot Springs. That serendipitous discovery led to the Laughing Heart Literary Project, which will hold its inaugural festival Tuesday, Aug. 1, to Friday, Aug. 4.

The event will include authors from Western North Carolina and elsewhere in Appalachia: Jill McCorkle, Terry Roberts, Julia Franks, Wayne Caldwell, Keith Flynn and Susi Gott Seguret as well as Thompson and Greene. (Thompson notes that going forward, the festival does have plans to improve the diversity of its lineup.) And, while its first night will feature a formal panel hosted by D.G. Martin (the host of UNC-TV‘s “North Carolina Bookwatch”) and honoring novelist and poet Robert Morgan, it will break the mold of literary festivals in other ways.

Authors at the festival, Thompson says, “are going to be speaking about the craft in a very casual setting — talking to each other and mingling with the participants.” The festival schedule reflects this: Instead of “discussions,” the event will feature a series of “conversations” about building a sense of place and writing historical fiction, among other topics.

This approach, which will set the presenters loose to fully engage with attendees, is one of the things that attracted the support of Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, which is helping to publicize the event. “This is going to be like hanging out in the living room with people who have written about this area all of their lives,” says Melanie McNair, Malaprop’s director of author events, who will participate in a conversation on Thursday afternoon about the relationship between booksellers and authors. “It’s more a festival for readers, to take away the velvet rope that usually separates readers from writers at this sort of thing,” she says.

McNair says that Malaprop’s was also intrigued by Greene and Thompson’s plans to go beyond a literary festival. “Amy and Trent have a lot of energy to bring the real Appalachia to light on the national scene, and they’re also bringing energy to people who are making changes here,” she says.

Both Thompson and Greene have roots in Appalachia. Greene, who penned the novels Bloodroot and Long Man, grew up in poverty in Bull’s Gap, Tenn. Though Thompson was raised in Cincinnati, his family came from rural Kentucky, and he remembers how his grandparents’ homestead didn’t have running water until well into the 1970s.

“There’s a significant problem with literacy, even today,” Thompson says. According to the Literacy Council of Buncombe County, one in 10 adults in this county cannot read at a basic level, while 10 percent of adults lack a high school diploma.

Thompson and Greene hope local literature can become an avenue toward inspiring young people in the region to read. As an example, Thompson mentions Jim Stokely, the son of environmentalist and literary lion Wilma Dykeman, whom the two authors met in the processs of organizing the festival. Next year, the Laughing Heart organizers will partner with Stokely’s Wilma Dykeman Legacy organization to host a legacy and literature workshop that will bring teachers and students together to explore the inspirational power of writing and books.

As they work on this project, Greene and Thompson are focused in particular on fostering a new generation of Appalachian authors. To that end, the two organizers reached out to local colleges to encourage students to attend this year’s festival. Thompson says the festival has worked in partnership with UNC Asheville and Walter State College in Morristown, Tenn., to provide scholarships to students from those schools; the students will receive one-on-one sessions with Greene in which she’ll help them with their creative writing processes.

WHAT: The Laughing Heart Literary Festival, avl.mx/3xy
WHERE: Laughing Heart Lodge, 289 NW U.S. 25/70, Hot Springs
WHEN: Tuesday, Aug. 1, to Friday, Aug. 4. $300 full festival/$150 per day

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About Doug Gibson
I live in West Asheville. I do a lot of reading. Follow me on Twitter: @dougibson

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