Reading round up: 2014 in books

In the course of a year, Xpress writers talk to a lot of visual artists, dancers, musicians, actors, crafters and designers. We also get to check in with local authors about their latest projects, book launches, writing tips, and what it means to publish work in a town with a deep connection to literature.

Area bookstores keep our calendars full of readings and signings by nationally touring authors (this year brought Tom Robbins, Elizabeth Gilbert and Karen Russell, among others) and enthusiastically attended events by local writers such as Stephanie Perkins (Isla and the Happily Ever After) and Will Harlan (Untamed). With local reads in mind, Xpress looks back over some standout interviews with regional authors.

Lost Lake_Sarah Addison Allen• When Sarah Addison Allen sat down to write Lost Lake, her first novel in three years, she began with an image: Spanish moss. “I knew I wanted to go someplace swampy and wet,” Allen says, and so Lost Lake was born — a fading resort on the outskirts of a small Georgia town. For the local author this marked a significant change: It was the first time she had set a story outside of North Carolina. The book tells the story of Kate Pheris, a young widow just beginning to reclaim control of her life after a year lost to mourning her husband. Several other characters — including romantic interest Wes Patterson — are also dealing with grief in various forms. Kate’s journey sets off a series of events that move them all beyond heartache to reconnection and renewal. In short, Kate goes to Lost Lake and finds “something she didn’t know she was looking for,” Allen says. “Which sort of mirrors the cancer journey.” — Doug Gibson, Jan. 21. Read the story at

• Psychotherapist Bryan E. Robinson is a veteran author, having written 35 self-help and scholarly books on stress and workaholism over the years. His first work of fiction is 12 years in the making. Limestone Gumption tells the story of therapist Brad Pope, who returns to live in his hometown, a small community along Florida’s Suwannee River. When the abusive husband of one of Pope’s patients is murdered while diving in underwater caves, the therapist realizes that not all the demons from his dysfunctional family history are safely buried in the past.

The author says he grew up “with ink in my blood” and starting writing when he was about 7 years old. “I grew up in a really dysfunctional family, and I did it to get away from the craziness. I’d just go to my room and make up these history stories.” — Rich Rennicks, March 5. Read the story at

Deadliest_4_2• Sallie Bissell describes herself as a “flatland Southerner.” The Nashville native worked in advertising and ghost-wrote for a children’s series. And then she penned a literary novel that several agents praised but rejected. So she set out to write a thriller — a formula that worked. The author started work on Forest of Harm, the initial book that series, with many of the ingredients already in mind. Having just moved to Asheville, she says, “I was fascinated by the Cherokee culture, which was new to me at the time, and the woods seemed to be a natural canvas to paint a story in which people get into big trouble.”
Over the course of Mary Crow’s adventures, that bad-guy vortex has proved powerful and dangerous. For example, in Deadliest of Sins, the heroine uncovers a criminal underworld built on murder, abuse and abduction. The novel’s action unfolds on a familiar territory. Set in Asheville, it opens with Mary Crow walking through downtown and taking in the sights, including the St. Lawrence Basilica and Malaprop’s, before going to her office in the Flatiron Building. “It was great fun to write,” Bissell says. “It’s kind of my own love letter to Asheville.” — D.G., April 16. Read the story at

• It’s the first week of June — the start of the summer season — and a lighthouse keeper on one of the barrier islands near Charleston, S.C., has died a grisly death, an apparent suicide. But then, just as tourists are flocking to the local beaches, the killing spirals into a bizarre series of ritual slaughters. And the only ones who can stop the bloodshed are rookie policeman Tyler Miles and Chloe Hart, a researcher for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That’s the plot of Tidal Pools by Lawrence Thackston. The setting, of course, is coastal South Carolina — its barrier islands, beaches and resorts, stretching from Charleston to Savannah, Ga.

“I hope that people who go down to those islands pick up the book for their long weekend and read it on the beach,” he says. But while the terrain may be familiar, the background may not be. In addition to being a fast-paced thriller, the book is based on Thackston’s research into Gullah culture and African religious practices and beliefs that survived the trip across the Atlantic Ocean. D.G., June 4. Read the story at

BYRD-cover-1100x1711• Kim Church started writing fiction a couple of decades ago, partly in response to the death of her father. Church was in her 30s and a partner at a prestigious Raleigh law firm whose stock-in-trade was civil litigation. “I was working on a wrongful death case involving a woman my age who had left behind four children under the age of 7,” she says. “It was one of those moments that you think, ‘What am I not doing that I should be doing?’”

Long interested in writing, she returned to that. Byrd, Church’s first published novel, begins in the 1960s in the fictional Carswell, North Carolina, and tells the story of Addie Lockwood. “Addie is a woman who comes of age at a time when a lot of choices are available to a woman her age,” says Church. “The book is about how a woman in her circumstances would come to make decisions about issues like motherhood.” — Fred Wasser, Aug. 20. Read the story at

• Local author Michelle Baker writes poems that sometimes reach 15 or 20 pages in length. But when one hit the 40-page mark, “I thought, ‘This isn’t going to stop anytime soon,’” she says. That poem grew and morphed and eventually became The Canoe, a novel that weaves together two lives touched by the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

The character Bernie was inspired by Baker’s grandfather, one of Maryland’s first licensed morticians. “Because of that, I grew up around a lot of death, and with that comes a lot of stories,” she says. “Everyone can say where they were on 9/11. For my mom’s generation, everyone can say where they were when Kennedy was shot. For my grandfather … for nonwartime, it would have been the Titanic. I always wanted to ask him, ‘What did you hear about that?’” It occurred to her that, although she’d never had that conversation, she could make it up. —A.M., Nov. 12. Read the story at

amuseamaze-cover-finalFiona Ritchie (the presenter of NPR’s long-running program, “The Thistle and the Shamrock”) first noticed similarities between Scottish traditional music and the Appalachian folk music and ballads she encountered when she came to study at UNC Charlotte in the early 1980s. It was that interest that eventually led her and Doug Orr to coauthor Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. The book took 10 years to complete, and it is an encyclopedic history of the people and pathways that brought traditional music and ballads from the Scottish Highlands in the 1600s to the mountain coves of Appalachia via Northern Ireland, and which gave birth to many of the musical traditions known in Western North Carolina today. “Living in North Carolina, all I had to do was open my ears, and I could immediately hear there was a connection [to Scotland] that was genuine, meaningful [and] very old,” she says. “The music has changed and morphed over the years.” — R.R., Nov. 12. Read the story at

• Puzzles are featured prominently in Peter Turchi‘s new book, A Muse & a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic, which juxtaposes the author’s essays with a selection of artworks, quotes and inspirations. “The goal is to help people think about writing and reading in different ways,” says the author. “I collect images and ideas and, if it seems to me to make sense, I convey that to the reader.” Some of the puzzles included were composed specially for the book.

A Muse & a Maze quotes the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Bruce Springsteen; it also explores the photography of Charles Ritchie, with whom Turchi has collaborated. “Other narrative forms, like film and plays, offer pretty direct inspiration,” the writer says. “Sometimes it can be an artist whose work doesn’t have any obvious relation to mine. … Just the very notion behind them sometimes can be helpful in making me think of some aspect of fiction in a different way.” —A.M., Nov. 19. Read the story at


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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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