Earlier this month, local author Robert Beatty released Serafina and the Twisted Staff, the second book featuring the catlike young heroine and her adventures on the Biltmore Estate. Launch events for the book include a reading at Malaprop’s on Sunday, July 31.
According to Cindy Norris, the event coordinator at Malaprop’s, anyone interested in the author appearance should buy their tickets ahead of time, because it’s likely to sell out — a mark of the best-seller status of Serafina and the Black Cloak, the first book in the series. “Serafina has made a huge difference at Malaprop’s,” she says. “We’ve sold more Serafina books than any other bookstore.”
Other local bookstores have also benefited from Beatty’s popular character. Nicole Lowery, community coordinator for Barnes & Noble, says Beatty’s reading and signing for the paperback edition of Black Cloak attracted 1,000 people to the Asheville Mall location — some from as far away as Louisiana. “Serafina days are our favorites,” she says.
For the author, the best result of the book’s popularity is that it has gotten people reading — especially kids. “Apparently the book’s really good at pulling in reluctant readers,” he says. He recalls a conversation with a group of local librarians in which he confessed his worries about blending the history of the Biltmore Estate — the people and places of the Gilded Age of Western North Carolina, as well as the Vanderbilt family — with fantasy. “They all just started laughing,” he says. “They told me, ‘If you don’t have the fantasy element, then it’s not engaging enough for kids to stick with it.’”
Serafina fans do more than just stick with the book — they pay the area a visit. According to Lowery, people are picking up copies in conjunction with a visit to the estate. And it isn’t just bookstores that have taken notice. The Hop Ice Cream Cafe invented a “Serafina Dark Forest” flavor, and the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Biltmore Village is offering a Serafina package, including tickets to Biltmore and signed copies of the book.
“Some of them had never heard of the Biltmore Estate,” Beatty says of his readers. “They know about it now.”
Like Black Cloak, Twisted Staff takes readers beyond Biltmore, into a world based on Beatty’s experience of Asheville and its environs. A state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator and avid birder, Beatty’s love for the area’s animals inspired him to include them in his books. In the middle of writing Twisted Staff, he asked his wife, “I’m going to be putting peregrine falcons and owls into my book — is that crazy?”
The Michigan transplant has also been inspired by his love of the landscape of the Southern Appalachians. Some of his favorite hiking trails turn up as settings in the new novel, and the several waterfall-shielded caves in the area serve as a refuge for Serafina as the book’s plot unfolds. Tourists interested in visiting these locations will soon be able to buy “A Guide to Serafina’s Mountains,” a map.
Talking to Beatty, it’s clear that he also takes pride in the history he’s managed to include. For Twisted Staff, for example, he researched turn-of-the-century mountain dialect. “I especially like when mountain people today say, ‘My grandfather used to talk like that!’” he says. In addition, the success of the first book has given him even wider access to Biltmore, with descendants of the Vanderbilt family acting as personal guides, giving him new insights into the house and new material with which to work.
Finally, Twisted Staff gives a prominent role to George Vanderbilt, the original owner of the Biltmore house, and his friend, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead. While Beatty extrapolates from the historical Vanderbilt — depicting him as the man who marshals the community’s conventional forces against the sorcerer who is the book’s chief villain — he clearly admires the Biltmore Estate patriarch. “They planted all those trees,” Beatty says, pointing out that the forest around Biltmore is, in a sense, a work of art in its own right. “Asheville is known today for its culture and its art, and a lot of that has to do with George Vanderbilt’s vision of building this amazing house.”
Beatty adds, “He just wanted to build this beautiful, awesome thing. That’s the kind of guy I can relate to.”
WHO: Robert Beatty presents Serafina and the Twisted Staff
WHERE: Malaprop’s, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Sunday, July 31, at 5 p.m. $5