Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains

A Guidebook

By Georgann Eubanks

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Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains

440 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 83 color and 20 b&w illus., 22 maps, index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5833-2
    Published: October 2007

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Author Q&A

Copyright(c) 2007 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rightsreserved.

Georgann Eubanks, author of Literary Trails of theNorth Carolina Mountains: A Guidebook, on the rewards in storefor readers retracing her route.

Q: Why do you think that cultural tourism ingeneral, and literary tourism in particular, is gaining popularity inthe United States?

A: I think that as our builtenvironment in the United States has become increasingly homogenized bythe brand name hotels and chain restaurants at every Interstate exit,tourists now have to look much harder to find what makes any destinationinteresting, memorable, and distinctive. It seems increasingly true thatonly through the arts, the indigenous crafts, and the cultural historyof a place and its people can we find what makes a destination trulyspecial, what gives it an identity that's worth visiting. Of coursegeography can be a powerful variable in this country, but even thevistas are diminished by so many familiar logos lighting up the skyeverywhere.

In response to this situation, my family long agoadopted a rule on vacation that no matter where we go, we avoid the malland chain, even in hotel/motel choices if we can. Instead, we drift offthe Interstates, follow two-lane highways and seek out the shops, sites,and vintage restaurants that can still reveal the history, tastes, andculture of a place. This practice makes travel a much more authenticprocess of discovery.

In terms of literature, our North Carolinawriters and those from outside the state who've spent significant timehere have done a pretty amazing job over the past 200-plus years ofcapturing the language, dialects, syntax, quirky characters, and sensoryaspects of this state. Their works are a natural companion for thetourist who is looking to go beyond the surface and learn about NorthCarolina, past and present.

What continues to motivate me in theLiterary Trails project is the hunt for those places, authors, andquirky stories that I didn't know before. As Robert Frost said, "...nosurprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." I hope thatLiterary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains and the subsequentvolumes on the Piedmont and East will surprise and delight readers inthe same way that I was delighted and surprised in the research andwriting.

Of course, the Trails books contain information that anyonecould find if they look hard enough, but what I hope makes this projectdifferent is the aggregation of stories, anecdotes, and literary tidbitsthat accompany the poems and excerpts of narratives from NC writers.Lots of people take books they've been meaning to read on vacation withthem. This project suggests books that tourists can carry on vacationthat are about the places they're headed.

Q: The University of North Carolina Press ispublishing this book in association with the North Carolina ArtsCouncil, an agency of the Department of Cultural Resources. How doesthis guide tie in with other North Carolina Arts Councilinitiatives?

A: This series of books followstwo other distinguished volumes. Blue Ridge Music Trails: Finding aPlace in the Circle, written by Fred C. Fussell, is a comprehensivetraveler's guide to finding old-time and bluegrass music and dancevenues in the mountains. Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook, written byBarbara R. Duncan and Brett H. Riggs, traces the heritage of theCherokee people in sacred places, historic sites and throughdescriptions of the community ties, storytelling, and folk arts of theseindigenous people. It covers the southern mountain region of westernNorth Carolina, eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia.

I am really proud to be a part of this innovative way to share NorthCarolina culture with visitors, new residents, and natives. Our ArtsCouncil is nationally recognized for such creative projects.

Q: Literary Trails of the North CarolinaMountains is the first of three planned guidebooks in this series.When will the two companion volumes about the Piedmont and Coastal Plainbe available?

A:  Obviously, this is an enormous undertaking, but we hope to bring out the next books in 2009 and 2010.

Q: In the book's preface, you talk about your childhood experiences with literature. Did you have any early encounters with literary tourism?

A:  I actually grew up in Georgia.I came to North Carolina for college, and I've been here ever since,more than 30 years.

As a child, I do remember that my family took me to visit Joel ChandlerHarris's home, "The Wren's Nest" in Atlanta when I was very young andwas just getting to know the Uncle Remus stories. From that and severalother experiences, I'd have to say that my earliest awareness of historyand the fame of certain writers was totally informed by place. I wasactually born 90 years to the day after Sherman burned Atlanta, and thefirst movie my father ever took me to see was "Gone With the Wind" whenI was five. (Of course that was a revival showing, though my mother hadactually been to the premiere at the Loew's Grand Theater in 1939.) Forbetter or worse, Margaret Mitchell was an Atlanta icon.

Later, I remember going to the public library in downtown Atlanta as ateenager and gazing into the glass case that held Mitchell's portableRemington typewriter. Today, seeing Thomas Wolfe's typewriter inAsheville gives me the same thrill as does walking the halls of theGrove Park Inn and trying to imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald gazing acrossthe hills to the site of Highland Hospital where his wife Zelda was apatient.

Q: How do you envision literary touristsusing your book?

A:  I imagine some people readingit straight through and skipping over the driving directions, justenjoying it as armchair tourists. I also hope that travelers will grabit as they go out the door on a business trip, hoping to find somethingto do in addition to their work in a given locale. And of course, I hopethat families and groups of friends will decide to take the actualtours - there are 18 - going to the sites that interest them, and mostimportantly stopping to read aloud from the excerpts included fromnovels, short stories, and poetry collections. That's exactly what DonnaCampbell (the photographer on the project) and I did. We'd climb a trailand stop and read a poem and keep going. Or when I'd find an excerpt I'dcopy it down, print it out, and we'd go hunting for the spot described.

The NC Arts Council is also creating a magnificent website based on thebook where travelers can access a good bit of the book and also keep upwith developments in literature—new books coming along by local authorsin the area. Eventually we hope to add podcasts, video and other tidbitsso that curious travelers might actually hear the voices of the writersincluded along the Trails.

Q: Why is it important that people remember these literary landmarks? Are any of them in danger of being forgotten?

A: Well, as I learned so plainlyfrom my colleagues at the North Carolina Humanities Council, we cannotfully know who we are today without knowing where we have come from.Again, I think the present fascination among so many folks to exploretheir genealogy has been amplified by the homogeneity that's overtakencertain parts of our lives. People today seem to have a deep desire notto relinquish their identities and histories in the midst of so muchdestruction of the cultural artifacts that once defined the small townsand family traditions of all kinds of peoples in North Carolina. Theseidentities are being blurred. Material culture is moving so quicklytoward fusion, as is our food. This blending is certainly not all bad.It can be very exciting and interesting to mix traditions and tastes,but our state's writers - past and present - remind us of who we were, wherewe've been, what our core values have been, and how we have lived. Booksare a preservation mechanism, whether fiction or nonfiction.

As for the literary landmarks, of course they are changing anddisappearing all the time. The second book of the Trails Project willmake this quite plain, particularly in the literature that's come out ofCharlotte - a town that has destroyed its landmarks in favor of progress.In the Piedmont we've gone from textiles to high tech, from shade treemechanics to the big business of NASCAR. In fact, the Piedmont Trailsreally do lift up the transition from Old South to New South, from"muscle to mind work" as one sociologist put it. But contemporary NorthCarolina poets such as James Applewhite and Barbara Presnell remind usof our roots.

Q: How does touring these places help one both gain insight into the authors' minds and understand the personalities behind their works? Did every author actually visit the places with which they're associated?

A: The only writer I can think ofwho did not actually visit the place he wrote about that's included inthe Trails is Jules Verne. Amazingly, he launched a whole novel based onsomething he read in a library in France about the Brown MountainLights - a mysterious visual phenomenon near Morganton in the Blue Ridge.Verne never visited North Carolina, and beyond the first few pages ofthe novel, it shows! Still, how could I leave that fantastical storyout?

That said, my assignment from the N. C. Arts Council has been to createtours that take people to actual places written about by writers wholived and worked there. So I must confess that finding excerpts thatspeak first to actual places has been my priority more than trying tooffer some kind of inventory of all the good works written by every NCwriter or visiting author of some note. This series of books isfundamentally about seeing North Carolina places through the eyes of thewriters who have documented them.

Of course the anecdotes and foibles of these writers are alsoirresistible fodder. I have delved into the scholarly investigations andeye-witness accounts of how some of the writers lived and did theirwork. For example, reading Carl Sandburg's granddaughter's memoir bringsthe Sandburg home in Flat Rock alive. Would-be novelist and bookstoreowner Tony Buttitta's encounters with F. Scott Fitzgerald in Ashevilleare quite remarkable. University of Tennessee English professor AlisonEnsor shared his research with me about the separate visits to BiltmoreHouse of Gilded Age novelists and good friends Edith Wharton and HenryJames. James hated the place; Wharton was charmed.

Though I have used some literary biography, criticism, and academicresearch to inform the book, I wouldn't want prospective readers tothink this is a highly analytical or scholarly work. I have tried to bevery ecumenical and down-to-earth in the selections, hoping to offerstories, anecdotes and excerpts that will appeal to all kinds ofreaders - of popular fiction, mysteries, literary fiction, poetry,biography, and memoir.

Q: Do you have a favorite literary landmark in the North Carolina mountains?

A: I love the North Carolinamountains, period, so that's a very hard question. I suppose the FrenchBroad River and the New River are two landmarks that tie together manystories, peoples, and a vast swatch of real estate in the mountains.They have inspired a raft of powerful writing. Notably, the late WilmaDykeman's lyrical history, The French Broad, was a key resource to meand likewise should be to travelers in the region. The New River hasalso been written about, most recently by Noah Adams of NPR fame. Bothrivers are often mentioned in the same breath with the Nile as beingamong the oldest on the planet.

Of course when we're talking about rivers in western North Carolina, thePigeon is also important, especially in the work of our state's literaryjack-of-all-genres, Fred Chappell.

Q: How did you organize the tours, and how long did it take you to put them together?

A: I began with each county in theregion by turn, trying to find references to as many writers as I couldwho had a connection to that county. Then I'd look at the works of thewriters, searching for mentions of actual places or fictional placesthat bore a resemblance to the actual. Beyond the usual suspects, Isearched the Internet and my hometown libraries for leads to bothliterature and writers. I also drew upon my 30 years of reading andgetting to know the literary community in North Carolina, so I alreadyown a lot of relevant books. But I soon found out how much I didn'tknow.

Once I had a list of promising excerpts, books, and anecdotes,photographer Donna Campbell and I set out to see how to connect thedots. Once we were in a county, I would spend time in at least one locallibrary per county to double check for someone I might have missed. Ialso asked bookstore owners, phoned writers I knew in an area, and askedother local experts. Putting the tours together was then basically amatter of tracing out a driving route that was not too long for a day'sworth of touring and that offered some interesting literature to informthe travel. It took a couple of years to get through the region sincetraveling some of these routes in winter was not something I wanted totry.

Q: There are several authors whom many peopleconnect with the mountains of North Carolina - Thomas Wolfe with Ashevilleand Charles Frazier with Cold Mountain, for example. Who are some othernotable authors with ties to the area?

A: Kathryn Stripling Byer is ourstate's current poet laureate, whose work is both brilliant andaccessible, full of mountain talk and rich rural images. Likewise,Robert Morgan, born in Zirconia near Hendersonville and inspired by hisgrade school teacher to become a writer, is best known now for hisnovels about the mountains. (He's been on Oprah for his book Gap Creek.)But Morgan's poetry was invaluable to me in helping to reveal themountain culture and history while also getting us from one place to thenext. His poems offer surprising tales focusing on place, character, orlandscape.

Sharyn McCrumb, whose forebears are from Mitchell County, has written aseries of "ballad novels" that lift up longstanding mountain legends andtragedies. She has carved out a niche that is all her own. Jan Karon,who was born in Caldwell County and lived for a time in Blowing Rock, isof course a nationally known voice in popular Christian fiction.

Then there are other surprises. Novelist Anne Tyler spent her earlyyears in Celo - a Quaker community near Burnsville. Frances HodgsonBurnett, who wrote My Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy, was fondof the Chimney Rock area and spent time writing there. Tony Earley, whoteaches now at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, is, to me,one of the most insightful essayists and short story writers from theregion. He is from Rutherfordton.

Q: Why has North Carolina attracted so manycelebrated authors and poets? Do you think the state will continue to bea magnet for literary talent in the future?

A: The state is and continues tobe a magnet for literary talent. I believe partly it is thenoncompetitive and generous literary community here, where seasonedwriters help beginning writers learn their craft and navigate thepublishing world. The natural beauty and the variety of cultures andlandscapes in the state continue to be powerful draws. The strength ofhigher education in North Carolina is also a significant force, as isthe longstanding emphasis placed on nurturing the arts in communities atthe grassroots. This is fertile literary soil! There is so much more tobe written about North Carolina, and nothing would make me happier thanknowing that a child on vacation tried his or her hand at a poem afterbeing inspired by some of the excerpted works in this book.