In the 1980s, Asheville was a sleepy little town with not much going on — parking was free, there weren’t coffee shops on every corner, and few people were to be seen on the streets after dark. Not much going on culturally either, especially when it came to writing. There were no writing classes or groups and few writers to be found.
By 1990, Asheville’s writing scene had been born, thanks to literary legend Peter Matthiessen. The Writers’ Workshop had invited the renowned author and explorer to Asheville in 1987 to read a rough draft of Killing Mr. Watson, which later won the National Book Award as part of Shadow Country. I was thrilled to be his driver to South Carolina and Georgia, where he continued his research for the book. Together, we scoured library archives and ancient cemeteries for clues to explain the diabolical nature of Watson.
That summer, over dinner one night at his home in Sagaponack, N.Y., Matthiessen introduced me to his friends Kurt Vonnegut, E.L. Doctorow and Don DeLillo. They also agreed to come to Asheville to read and answer poignant questions from the audience.
Vonnegut flew into Asheville from Charlotte, where he’d had a reading engagement. As he sank onto a bench outside our office in the Flat Iron Building, he said, “What a great town! I would have been depressed if I’d just gone home [to New York] from Charlotte — what a bleak city, no atmosphere. You guys were smart to keep your historic buildings intact. Now where’s Thomas Wolfe’s home?”
We invited Alex Haley, and he came to read from Roots, to the largest mixed–race audience Asheville had ever seen. While here, he dedicated the Jesse Ray room at the YMI Cultural Center.
We also hosted Eudora Welty, Reynolds Price, John le Carre, Gail Godwin, Wilma Dykeman, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Joseph Bathanti, Sue Monk Kidd and John Ehle — each drawing huge crowds. Soon, visitors to Asheville were exclaiming what a wonderful literary community we must have to bring in such stellar authors who all gave benefit appearances for The Writers’ Workshop. These writers later formed our advisory board.
The ongoing workshops and contests we provided to the community became very popular in the ’90s. Many writers groups formed from these classes, some of which are still meeting today. Since 1985, over 25,000 people have participated in our workshops, readings and contests, and our membership has grown to nearly 1,000 people.
The Writers’ Workshop hires published, professional writers from the area to teach classes in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, playwriting, journal writing and more. Our workshops are designed to help children and adults improve their writing skills, regardless of age, race or background. We provide financial assistance to low-income writers through our work-exchange program.
For more info about The Writers’ Workshop, please visit twwoa.org. Karen Ackerson is the founder and executive director of The Writers’ Workshop.