Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont

A Guidebook

By Georgann Eubanks

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Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont

472 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 83 color and 18 b&w illus., 22 maps, index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5979-7
    Published: October 2010
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-9952-6
    Published: October 2010

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Author Q&A

Copyright (c) 2010 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

A Conversation with Georgann Eubanks, author of the Literary Trails of North Carolina series, on her latest guidebook, Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont.

Q: What is your favorite stop on the North Carolina Piedmont literary trail and why?

A: This is an impossible question, because I have so many favorites. However, if forced to answer, I'd say the walking tour of Charlotte is a serious contender for one of the best stops. There is so much literary history packed into those few blocks: the hotel where Edgar Lee Masters (Spoon River Anthology) lived for a time; the hotel where William Styron, as a Davidson student, lost his virginity (which he wrote about in two different works); the apartment house where W.J. Cash first drafted The Mind of the South; the crossroads that launched Burke Davis's career as a writer of historical fiction (Trade and Tryon Streets). And, of course, this particular walking tour also includes Charlotte's highly acclaimed public libraries - the main library and the amazing Imaginon, the children's library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

Q: What was the most interesting or surprising discovery you made while you were putting this volume together?

A: The challenge of this assignment from the N.C. Arts Council - creating tours based on literary landmarks and places that authors have written about over the years - makes for many unlikely discoveries. After writing two of the three volumes planned for this series, I am still amazed at the literary links I have been able to uncover in some surprising places. For example, the Duke Mansion in Charlotte surely played host to writers, but it was not until I learned that James B. Duke's family sold the mansion in the late 1920s to the Cannon family (of towel fame), that I discovered the strongest literary connection. John Hersey (author of A Bell for Adano and Hiroshima) was married at the mansion to Frances Ann Cannon. Also present at the wedding was a former fiance of Miss Cannon - none other than John F. Kennedy who would go on to write Profiles in Courage. Both Johns - Hersey and Kennedy - won Pulitzers for their work. And one other interesting literary detail: Hersey was working as the personal secretary to author Sinclair Lewis just before his marriage to Cannon.

Q: How did you decide to begin this book with Winston-Salem?

A: Volume one - Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains - ended in Allegheny County, so it was a short leap to the southeast to pick up this journey across North Carolina in what may well be the Piedmont's best-known city worldwide. Winston-Salem, with its strong history of tobacco and textile manufacturing and its important institutions of higher education - Winston-Salem State, Wake Forest, Salem College - was also a good place to start in terms of lifting up the several major themes that run through this book. Namely, the tradition of mentorship among writers based in our state's universities, the influence of mill culture and agriculture on Piedmont writers, and the transition from old South to new South in terms of economic development and civil rights, which resulted in the diversification of North Carolina's literary voices. These three elements are central to the book.

Q: This volume features famous native North Carolina authors such as O. Henry and visitors Zora Neale Hurston and Carson McCullers. Who are some of the other notable authors associated with the Piedmont area?

A: It is certainly no secret, even to the most occasional reader of contemporary United States literature, that we have living in the Piedmont some of the most notable Southern writers of our time - Reynolds Price, Lee Smith, Allan Gurganus, Randall Kenan,Elizabeth Spencer, Maya Angelou, Fred Chappell, and Doris Betts - just to name a few. The Piedmont was also home to short story master Peter Taylor (originally from Tennessee) and his wife, poet Eleanor Ross Taylor (from Norwood, in Stanley County) who, at the age 90, was recently awarded the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime literary achievement. Her sister, Jean Ross Justice, now in her eighties, just published her first collection of short stories. Jean was married to the late Pulitzer Prizewinning poet Donald Justice. The Ross sisters had two brothers - Fred and James - who wrote acclaimed novels about their native Stanley County in the mid-twentieth century. All this literary output from only one North Carolina family is astonishing! Today, Heather Ross Miller, Fred's daughter, is a distinguished poet who teaches at Pfeiffer University after retiring from a long career at Washington and Lee University.

Other important authors have spent time in the Piedmont: Margaret Walker Alexander, who was the first African American woman to win the Yale Younger Poets competition, was teaching at Livingstone College in Salisbury at the time of her award in the 1940s. Alex Haley, the author of Roots, discovered a critical link to his African ancestors in Alamance County, which allowed him to finish the book that would go on to become a bestseller and the basis for a landmark television mini-series.

Q: How would you characterize the relationship between the literature produced in the North Carolina Piedmont and the economic and political forces of the area?

A: Stories and poems are still being inspired by our vanishing cotton mill culture and the failed effort at unionization among mill workers that led to so much historical conflict. Six novels have been written about the worker uprising in Gastonia in 1929, and today, the descendants of those workers are finding their voices through poetry and fiction and memoir. The impact of the Civil Rights Movement is also a continuing theme in Piedmont literature, through the works of writers such as Timothy Tyson, Linda Brown, Carole Boston Weatherford, and Lewis Shiner. The transformation of a primarily agricultural region to a center for banking, biotechnology, NASCAR, higher education, and research is also the kind of unsettling force that prompts writers to examine the stories of people affected by these sweeping changes. These forces have most certainly entered the literary landscape in the works of authors such as Ron Rash who writes about Charlotte, David Payne who writes about his native Henderson, and poet Jaki Shelton Green, who writes about her hometown of Efland. Novelists John Hart, originally from Salisbury, and Lynn York, who grew up in Pilot Mountain, address the emergence of North Carolina's new wine industry in their recent fiction. Journalist Scott Huler has written the most lyrical and amazing account of a week at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, located between Concord and Charlotte. If you want to understand what's going on in the Piedmont, our creative writers - contemporary and long past - offer a bright window.

Q: How does the literary trail guidebook fit into the North Carolina Arts Council's cultural tourism program?

A: This new guidebook is the second in a three-part series of literary trails guidebooks. The first one, Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains, covered the western terrain of North Carolina writers and the landscape that contributed to their work. But the Arts Council also has other cultural trails guidebooks including the Blue Ridge Music Trails: Finding a Place in the Circle and the Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook. The guidebooks are only one of the ways in which the Arts Council highlights North Carolina's great cultural traditions. The Arts Council also has companion web sites for each of the guidebooks, plus other cultural trails featuring the rich traditions of places such as Historic Happy Valley, a 28-mile rural stretch in Caldwell and Wilkes counties, and North Carolina craft. The North Carolina Arts Council is recognized nationally for its leadership role in developing cultural trails that both stimulate regional economies and perpetuate rich arts traditions. For example, the Historic Happy Valley area (featured in the first literary trails guidebook) originated from the need to preserve farmland, protect the water quality along the scenic Yadkin River, and conserve arts traditions that have been practiced for generations. In fact, a fiddler's event emerged from the project and the sixth annual festival is scheduled this Labor Day weekend when Historic Happy Valley will host the musical weekend that draws as many as 2,000 visitors including the internationally recognized Kruger Brothers.

Q: This is the second volume in the Literary Trails series. How are the tours or the literary landmarks different between the mountains and the Piedmont region?

A: Most fundamentally, I would say that the number of larger cities in the Piedmont, particularly in the urban corridor that stretches from Charlotte to the Research Triangle, provides a very different flavor to the literature. Most obviously, Piedmont weather is different, the soil is different, and consequently the stories and settings are different. The mountains have long been a tourist destination that invite reflection and a lofty sense of place. Because of its early isolation, the mountain region also brewed up a distinctive kind of culture. By comparison, the Piedmont is where rural and urban meet up close and often clash. The contrasts are striking. Residents have been constantly adjusting to breakneck growth and new economic challenges in the century just past. Meanwhile, we have seen the continuing rise in the reputations of many of our institutions of higher learning. The Piedmont is now home to some of the very best universities and colleges in the world. These institutions have drawn an amazing raft of writers and helped to cultivate a healthy homegrown crop of wordsmiths as well.

Q: Do the regions of North Carolina have their own literary characters? Or do you see a lot of overlap in the authors you cover from region to region?

A: There is definitely overlap. The native North Carolina writers have certainly not been confined to their birthplaces for sources of inspiration. Most bring a keen eye to any location they visit. In choosing the excerpts of poetry and prose to illustrate any given tour in Literary Trails, I am first looking for those passages that will entice my readers to go deeper, to see what they may not have seen had they not experienced the voices of these authors. The overlap is natural. Our state's poet laureate emeritus Fred Chappell, for example, writes just as vividly about his rural upbringing in the mountains of Canton as he does of his later life as a distinguished professor in now-metropolitan Greensboro. His work is essential to both volumes, mountains and piedmont.

Q: This volume shows the North Carolina Piedmont as a crossroads where homegrown literary talent and notable writers from around the US converge. Why do you think that is so? What draws these authors to the Piedmont region?

A: In the case of the mountains, authors such as Walker Percy and F. Scott Fitzgerald were drawn to the opportunities for quiet and cool air - an escape from other, busier places. In the case of the Piedmont, our universities have drawn many writers - first as visiting guests, and later with faculty appointments. Think of novelist and playwright Ariel Dorfman from Chile or Oscar Hijuelos from Cuba. Both now teach and write at Duke University. The late poet Elizabeth Sewell taught, studied, and wrote all over the world, but she chose Greensboro as her final home. Many other extraordinary Southern authors landed at UNC-G because of friendships with other writers. Randall Jarrell, a most influential poet, ended up there, alongside Peter Taylor.

Q: Is there a genre or type of writing that you think appears most frequently in books associated with the Piedmont? If so, why?

A: I am struck by the number of journalists from North Carolina who went on to national, even iconic, stature in their field: Edward R. Murrow and Charles Kuralt at CBS; Mebane native Edwin Yoder and Jonathan Yardley (UNC grad) from the Washington Post; and Tom Wicker at the New York Times. Perhaps lesser known but no less influential was Harold Hayes who grew up in Elkin, studied at Wake Forest, and is considered the father of the "New Journalism" that emerged at Esquire magazine in the 1960s. Hayes and Duke graduate Clay Felker (founder of New York Magazine) were early rivals in the magazine business. Among the writers in their stables were William Styron (also a Duke graduate) and Tom Wolfe (whose mother lived in Southern Pines), along with stellar writers from elsewhere - James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, and Dorothy Parker. These were the writers who first applied the techniques of fiction to their features for Esquire at Harold Hayes's urging. If journalism can be considered literary, it certainly was in the hands of all of these writers, especially Murrow and Kuralt.

Q: Reading through the book it becomes clear that these trails are more than just simply literary. Were you surprised at the intersections between literature, food, art, and other entertainments like NASCAR as you researched this volume?

A: The intersections were something of a vexation. There was, for example, a terrific recipe for chicken pot pie that I wanted to include in the book, based on a character in real life that influenced Lynne Hinton's novel Friendship Cake which is set in Alamance County. Ultimately this is a book about North Carolina culture, which includes many textures and tastes and ways of using words. I had to make some unhappy edits, because we have so much interesting material culture that fuels our literature. Lots of public art pieces around the Piedmont speak to our literature as well. It all makes for some interesting travel experiences.

Q: The authors covered in this book date back to the nineteenth century. Do you see continuity between the early literary culture of the Piedmont and the literary culture today?

A: John Lawson, in his first expeditions in the region, writes even earlier than the nineteenth century about what the native peoples in Waxhaw fed him, how they made their liquor - all described lyrically with a poet's eye for detail. Food and drink, clothing and household design, all the elements of daily life, are much in the writings from the beginning of our state's literature up to now. These details are what make the writing distinctive from any region. On another front, I think the willingness of North Carolina's accomplished writers to mentor the aspiring writers in our state has created a continuity and volume of literary output that is unusual. Visiting writers have said as much for years. They often remark on how connected and nurturing the literary community is here. Such a web of writers makes creating these books even more interesting - so many connections among these folks. Though North Carolina is a wide state with a vast and diverse geography, it sometimes feels like a very small world in my research.

Q: What readers are you hoping to reach with these books?

A: Honestly, I will be happiest if this book reaches beyond the usual suspects. I hope this series will find audiences who had no idea about these writers, their lives and works, and will be curious to learn more. It is too easy to preach to the choir or only talk shop to the academic community who make it their business to know these writers and analyze their techniques and themes. I hope regular folks who carry library cards or busy people who may only find time to read a book or two a year will be curious enough to look at the work of authors they may never have heard about, or visit a spot they drive by every day, but never knew had a literary connection. For example, there is a frame house still standing outside Rocky Mount where that crazy Jack Kerouac (On the Road, The Dharma Bums) lived with his mother and went into the woods to chant, meditate, and write poetry every day for nearly a year. But that's in the book I'm writing right now, Literary Trails of Eastern North Carolina, which is due out in a year or two.