Although the recently launched Asheville Literary Tour doesn’t include a Britney Spears singalong or a nun on a tall bike, it’s easy enough to spot: Guides and co-founders Sarah Giavedoni and Jim MacKenzie wear distinctive hats. The fedoras, trimmed with a reading lamp-style appendage extending from the band, were inspired by The Bookworm from the 1960s “Batman” TV series and, according to MacKenzie, “My favorite villain.”
There are a few villains on the 90-minute walking tour, too, which takes place Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays and by special arrangement. There’s a murderer, for one. There’s a librarian who refused to carry the book of a notable local author and a development group that would have razed a significant portion of downtown Asheville were it not for the efforts of a meddling novelist.
It’s that last story — when Wayne Caldwell, author of Cataloochee, and other activists led a grassroots effort to save 11 acres of the city’s downtown — that surprised MacKenzie while doing research for the tour. “About 37 years ago there was a movement to demolish downtown and turn it into a mall,” he says. “The city remains intact and the way it has looked for decades and decades because of a local author. I had no idea.”
Giavedoni says she enjoyed learning about the area’s women authors. “We know Zelda [Fitzgerald] stayed here … but also the first female medical school graduate in [the U.S.] lived in Asheville.” That doctor penned a number of books, essays, theses, lectures and articles. And the woman who received one of the largest advances for a debut novel is connected to this city as well, Giavedoni says. Want to find out who they were? The curious can do a Google search, but taking the tour is more entertaining.
The idea came about for Giavedoni and MacKenzie — who both attended college in Asheville and have lived here since the early 2000s — because they like to go on guided excursions when they visit other cities. “I love history tours, I love beer tours, I love ghost tours,” says MacKenzie. “We think Asheville has a wide variety of offerings and culture and tours. … We wanted to [create] one more category in which people could talk about Asheville because right now we seem to be Beer City — that seems to be our big draw. I don’t want our cultural history to be overshadowed by that.”
Giavedoni adds, “Our goal was to showcase Asheville over the years through these different authors so [people] could see it from a slightly different perspective.”
But because there aren’t many literary tours to look to for guidance (most, in other cities, are based around the homes of famous authors, such as Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Mass.; or the Langston Hughes House in Harlem), Giavedoni and MacKenzie had to build much of theirs from the ground up. The tour is likely to morph over time as the guides gain even more knowledge and refine their presentation.
Plus, Asheville’s literary landscape continues to evolve. “There are emerging authors right now,” MacKenzie notes. “Four years ago I hadn’t heard of Wiley Cash. Now he’s the go-to guy.” The author of A Land More Kind than Home and, most recently, The Last Ballad, Cash attended UNC Asheville and is now a professor of English and the writer-in-residence at his alma mater.
“Sarah doesn’t know this, but I’ve already added four names” for future tours, MacKenzie admits with a laugh.
Other contemporary writers made the current mix, as did poets and actors, and the scenes that those literary luminaries participated in or helped to cultivate. The tour also points out landmarks such as the location of the African-American public library during the era of segregation.
So why has this town attracted and produced so many writers — both historically and in the present day? “There’s a history of Asheville being like a mini-New York City,” says Giavedoni. “We’ve got the influence from the Vanderbilt family and the people who vacationed here over the seasons. We’ve got our Broadway and our Flatiron Building. [Patrons] of the art community … visited here and saw how great it was, just like all tourists to Asheville.”
MacKenzie adds, “We were also called the Paris of the South. Paris was influential with expats in the 19th century [such as] Gertrude Stein and Hemingway.” Perhaps, he muses, the Paris of the South designation helped to shape the literary reputation.
So who are the favorite authors of the Asheville Literary Tour’s guides? Giavedoni points to contemporary YA writer Megan Shepherd (who didn’t make the tour roster since she lives in Brevard). But for MacKenzie, it’s the original flapper: “I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Zelda Fitzgerald fan,” he insists. “I’ll praise her until the day I die.”
WHAT: Asheville Literary Tour
WHERE: Leaves from the fountain at Pack Square, covers about 24 downtown blocks on foot
WHEN: Wednesdays at 6 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 4 and 6:30 p.m. $25 adults/$15 children ages 5-12. Purchase tickets and learn more at avllitmap.com